Free speech resolution sparks faculty debate

Illustration by Raya Deussen

By Hanna Merzbach

A resolution advocating for free speech on campus was drafted by several faculty members following the protests against Christina Hoff Sommers’ speech at the Lewis & Clark Law School. The resolution was adapted from a similar statement released by University of Chicago in 2015 that has been adopted by 34 institutions as of January.

The statement originally had 13 faculty signatories, but received more support when sent out to the entire faculty. At the most recent faculty meeting on April 3, however, there was some dispute over the motion to adopt the resolution.

The motion was made by Associate Professor of History Ben Westervelt, one of the 13 original signatories.

“(The resolution) has been a little bit of a moving target,” Westervelt said. “A couple people have focused on some of the wording and wanted to make some suggestions, but I think the broader sentiment is that we would kind of like to step back and give this deliberation, rather than just rush ahead now.”

The new general education requirements need to be decided upon by the end of the semester, so the faculty have had little time in their meetings to dedicate to other topics. Many members of the faculty feel more time needs to be dedicated to finalizing the resolution.

“The faculty have not had ample time to discuss this,” Associate Professor of Philosophy Joel Martinez said. “Shouldn’t we all talk about it and think about it and talk about it with each other, not quickly, but after real thought?”

Martinez also brought up the question of timing. The resolution was drafted right after the Law School protests and could be interpreted as a direct response.

“If you time your comment right after the event, even if you say it wasn’t in direct response to the event, because of the timing, will your statement be taken in a way you don’t intend?” Martinez said.

Martinez explained the faculty’s hesitancy towards the resolution. Faculty value free speech, however, have worries about adopting the University of Chicago’s statement and the content of it.

“We have essentially just downloaded University of Chicago’s statement and cut and pasted it,” Martinez said. “Shouldn’t we just write our own?

Alternatively, Associate Professor of History and Program Director of Asian Studies Susan Glosser, one of the original 13 signatories, supports the University of Chicago resolution because she believes it clearly states a strong commitment to free speech.

“At a historical moment when free speech is threatened by groups and individuals that only want to allow certain types of speech to be free, it’s important for colleges and universities to unite and send a strong message that we support free speech for everyone, not just for those with whom we agree,” Glosser said via email.

While many faculty members have suggested postponing adopting a resolution until fall semester, Glosser feels a statement should be made sooner rather than later.

“Some faculty have expressed a desire to issue a statement on speech within a larger statement on issues of ethnic, racial, gender equality, etc.,” Glosser said. “Although those are also extremely important issues, I don’t think we need to wait for a statement on that.”

Professor of Psychology Brian Detweiler-Bedell believes the statement feels too rushed and does not represent Lewis & Clark’s collective values.

“In addition, it makes no attempt to balance between two important values — the freedom of expression and inquiry, on one hand, and being united together in a respectful community, on the other hand,” Detweiler-Bedell said over email. “Although Lewis & Clark’s policies might not be perfect, our past efforts have addressed this balance head on, and at least they are our own.”

Professor of History and Director of Ethnic Studies Elliot Young also believes more discussion needs to be had before a resolution is adopted. While he said he is in favor of free speech, he had some objections to the content of the resolution.

“The particular free speech resolution that was circulated seems to me to be problematic in that it is heavy on guaranteeing the rights of speakers to come to campus and promote hateful ideas and it doesn’t promote the same kind of free speech of the people protesting those ideas, dissenting for those ideas,” Young said. “If we are going to allow those people to come to campus, and I think we should, then we also need to allow people to respond, and I think it’s important to have conversations about where we draw the lines.”

Young also criticized the resolution for not connecting to the greater community beyond the LC campus.

“I think when we bring speakers that are controversial and members of hate groups to our campus, we’re part of a broader community,” Young said. “I feel like the public has a right to come and hear those ideas as well as if they disagree with them dissent from those ideas. There’s nothing in the University of Chicago resolution that protects the right of the public to free expression.”

Young said LC events should never be closed off to the public, even for safety concerns.

“There is an argument that students and people in the community should have priority if there is limited seating, that makes sense, but to ban the public,” Young said. “That seems like a pretty poor choice if the idea is promoting free expression and free exchange of ideas. Why are we afraid of the public?”

Young believes that, although student groups should be conscious of who they are inviting, the administration should not restrict their power to bring speakers to campus.

“Last year I encouraged the organizers of the International Affairs symposium to re-think and rescind their invitation to a speaker from an anti-immigrant group,” Young said, referring to Director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies Jessica M. Vaughan. “That being said, I don’t believe that the administration, or any other body should restrict the rights of any group on campus to invite whoever they want.”

The resolution will be brought up as old business during the May 1 faculty meeting. Considering the divided opinions on the resolution, most faculty believe a decision will not be made this semester and the resolution will have to be reintroduced in the fall for discussion.

Associate Professor of History and Department Chair David Campion was one of the original 13 signatories. Although he still stands with the resolution, he encourages discussion and believes the resolution is not time-sensitive.

“It often takes us a while to make a decision about something and it is good that, as a faculty, we are deliberating over it,” Campion said. “So, I’m not in any rush to have a vote on it. I think that soliciting other people’s opinions and really discussing it, and this may take a few faculty meetings to do it, is perfectly fine.”

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