Last month at Emory University, a message in favor of Donald Trump led to widescale student protests. The message, which read “Trump 2016,” offended students to such a degree that Emory is seeking disciplinary or legal action against the offender.
In a similar fashion on April 15, students from the University of Delaware chapter of Young Americans for Liberty were hosting a free speech gala with a large beach ball on which they encouraged passersby to express themselves. Campus police told the students to censor the word “penis” and other language that could be deemed harassment.
Recent occurrences at Colby show that we maintain a culture of free speech. Students have discussed and debated several cases of misconduct over the past year using the Civil Discourse. The college has regularly organized campuswide conversations. Young Americans for Liberty’s screening of “Can We Take a Joke?” was a celebration of free speech. These events show a vivid culture of free speech on campus.
However, Colby’s harassment policy could lead to an incident similar to those at Emory and UD.
At Colby, “harassment is defined as unwelcome hostile or intimidating remarks…or physical gestures directed at a specific person based on that person’s race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, religion, age, ancestry or national origin, disability, military status, or genetic information.” According to this policy, “unwelcome” actions are punishable because “harassment results in loss of self-esteem for the victim.’’
This standard is vague and confusing, and can be used to justify restricting a broad range of ideas. Political discussions, in particular, are bound to offend people. Issues like immigration reform, abortion, and the Israel Palestine conflict, to name a few, are extremely divisive. These topics are highly sensitive and can be uncomfortable to talk about. The harassment policy sets a standard for censoring all sorts of ideas that could be construed as “unwelcome” and damaging to “self-esteem.”
Social progress has always been a product of exchanging views and ideas. Society has progressed only through countering bad ideas with good ones. In order to progress, it is always necessary to test the status quo against dissenting opinions.
The beauty of a liberal arts education is being able to consider viewpoints from a wide range of academic subjects and a diverse set of backgrounds. These viewpoints can be conflicting, but that is what makes a liberal arts education so valuable. Our College’s harassment policy should not compromise in defending this aspect of our education.
In Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), the Supreme Court declared that “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
In order to effectively address harassment, the College should adopt policies that are less subjective and offer more transparent, predictable, and fair solutions. This would guarantee that serious instances of harassment are addressed, and not belittled by misuse of this broad policy. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999), the Supreme Court declared that harassment is conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” Colby should adopt this standard for its policy in order to punish serious incidents of harassment while preserving our college’s dedication to free speech at the same time.
Colby’s current harassment policy stifles free speech and undermines the philosophy behind a liberal arts education. Although Colby holds that it is “built on respect, active inquiry, and the free and open exchange of ideas,” the College’s harassment policy is inconsistent with this promise and the existing culture on campus.
It is time that we examine whether Colby’s policy fulfills its role here at the College. As a community, we should always be caring and open minded when it comes to views of our peers. It is possible to celebrate our diversity of thought while protecting one another from true harassment. Our current policy fails to reflect these expectations.