SGA to create speech policy

BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE '19 & LEAH WILLINGHAM '17

The Mount Holyoke Student Government Association announced its intention to develop a college statement on free speech at the Oct. 25 Senate meeting. 

This announcement was accompanied by a panel on free speech on college campuses that featured Dean of Faculty Jon Western, professor of politics Chris Pyle and professor of religious studies Amina Steinfels. 

A main topic of conversation at the panel was the distinction between how freedom of speech is applied and treated at public versus private institutions. 

According to the United States Constitution, free speech is “the right to speak without censorship or restraint by the government.” Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. 

Public universities, due to the fact that they’re state entities, are directly governed by the Constitution and thus are held to the free speech guaranteed in the Constitution. Private institutions, on the other hand, are not legally held to that same standard. They are not governed by the Constitution and instead are regulated by state and federal law, hence limiting government action. 

This means that private schools, like Mount Holyoke, are under no obligation to allow students freedom of expression. 

Despite this, Pyle, who has taught at Mount Holyoke for 40 years, said he’d never seen a serious violation of speech rights on campus.

“I think our administration clearly understands that each of us has free speech rights, even though the university is not bound by the Constitution,” he said. “It could throw you all out of here for your free speech, or un-free speech, but it won’t because it follows the Constitution.” 

According to advisor to the Student Government Alicia Erwin, the vast majority of private institutions extend speech rights to their students and community through policies and written statements. These policies and statements are considered, in a sense, a contract between the institution and the students. “You’re agreeing to come here and we’re saying these are the things we provide you while you’re here,” Erwin said. 

According to Roberta Green ’19, public relations officer for the SGA Executive Board, Mount Holyoke does not currently have any policies that explicitly address free speech. There are, however, various references to diversity and inclusion in both the student handbook and the honor code, Green said.

 For example, the Diversity and Inclusion section of the student handbook states that “the college acknowledges and values the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation etc.” 

Green explained, “We seek to create great connection and communication rather than polarization around these facets of [identity].” 

The topic of free speech was brought to SGA in the beginning of the semester by the Office of Student Life, which voiced interest in creating a freedom of speech statement and wanted input from the student body. 

“The administration wanted us to reach out to the students and ask how they felt about free speech on campus and what they wanted to see out of this,” Green said.   

Thus, the Senate panel and discussion on Oct. 25 provided a perfect opportunity to gage student opinion. The panel was also conveniently timed with other events, such as the recent election. 

Another topic discussed was the Campus Republicans’ efforts to bring Editor of the Daily Caller and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro to campus. 

Hall senator Francis McKane ’17 questioned why Mount Holyoke, a private institution with its own values, would fund a speaker that the majority of students do not support. 

“As a private institution, we don’t have to pay money to speakers that we don’t want to see,” McKane said. “We don’t have to spend our money on speakers that some students are going to find hateful, disruptive and questioning [of] the validity of their experiences — especially for students who have come here looking for a safe space.”

In response, Western said, “It’s never easy to say that we have to endure something that we find offensive, but I would say that we have 2,181 students here and I can guarantee you, they do not all believe the same thing. And when they do not believe the same thing, it means that somebody might say, ‘I’m sympathetic in some way, shape or form to something that is being said by one of these speakers that the majority finds antithetic.’”

Western said that to him, it becomes a problem when even one person’s voice is silenced. “That is something that harms us all because eventually, each one of us in some context will find ourselves an isolated voice,” said Western. “If we do not have the ability to speak up, to hold freedom of consciousness in that particular moment, it is incredibly problematic.”

Steinfels also warned against the dangers of barring someone like Shapiro from campus. 

“One of the interesting things about him and people like him is that they are selling a particular narrative and it’s a narrative that’s really hard to escape from,” said Steinfels. “They are selling a narrative about an attack of free speech on college campuses. And if you invite them to campus and they speak, then they are selling you that narrative for the cost that you paid them to say it. If you don’t invite them to campus, or you protest at their speech, you become a character in their narrative, which they then proceed to sell to everybody else.” 

Steinfels also acknowledged that the Anti-Defamation League recently ranked Shapiro among the top ten journalists being targeted by the most vile and hateful anti-Semitic Twitter attacks in the country on their website.

“He himself has experienced, lately, a certain variety of extremely hateful, violent speech,” Steinfels said. “I wish we could have an honest conversation with somebody like him about, how does that work out with his ideas and what he is experiencing.” 

President of the SGA Marwa Mikati ’17 said that the Student Government Association is still in the process of discussing whether or not Ben Shapiro will be coming to campus, and when.

The SGA Executive Board is currently working on the freedom of speech statement, which will be proposed to Student Life at the end of the semester. 

“The statement will articulate the institution’s commitment to ensuring that students in the community have access to free speech liberties,” explained Erwin. She also noted that the statement would likely define the elements of free speech on campus and that its purpose is not to restrict. “Its purpose is to define the college’s commitment to freedom of expression and dissent for students,” said Erwin. 

Currently, SGA is looking at other schools’ free speech policies and statements and the legal language they use as potential models for their proposal. “Each college is different,” said Green, “so we’re trying to figure out what would work best for Mount Holyoke.” 

When asked about the qualities of a good free speech policy or statement, Azhar Majeed, the director of policy reform for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech organization, said, “A good speech policy should not restrict anyone’s First Amendment right to speak. Students should have the freedom of basic expressive activities.” This sort of approach, he claims, would be more productive, as it will add more voices rather than taking away, and would result in a greater education process. 

The free speech conversation at Mount Holyoke is ongoing, so there is currently not a set date for the publication of the free speech code in the student handbook.

By revamping their Statement of Purpose, SGA hopes to better provide safety to Mount Holyoke students under the SGA constitution.

Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall said that she believes this is an important dialogue to have at Mount Holyoke, and that she hopes “all Mount Holyoke students feel that they have the opportunity to participate in a process that feels in alignment with our mission and values.”

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