Faculty to vote on freedom of expression policies

In the fall of 2017, President David Greene established a Presidential Task Force on Freedom of Expression and Inquiry to review and revise the College’s current policies regarding freedom of expression. The formation of the task force was largely motivated by various incidents concerning freedom of speech at colleges around the country. The task force met each week over the course of four semesters to form its official statement.

In the introduction of the final statement, the task force listed various suggestions it has for administrative policy changes, including a recommendation that “Colby explicitly affirm the rights of faculty members (and indeed of all community members) to share their thoughts in the

public sphere.”

The members of the task force also recommended that “Colby extend its existing protection of student speech rights by clearly and narrowly defining when expression can be subject to institutional sanction.” Principles to guide such protections are listed in the final report, which is accessible to the public. 

In a recent interview with the Echo, Professor Joseph Reisert, co-chair of the task force, said he felt that the protection of free expression within Colby’s staff was a necessary addition to Colby’s policy.

“We didn’t have anything that spoke directly to faculty engagement in the wider social world,” Reisert said. “What we say in tweets, or on Facebook, or in newspapers and what not. It’s to be presumed that community members are speaking for themselves and not the institution. And I think that’s an important piece that we added.” 

Reisert also felt that the principles of the statement reflected the values of the College.

“It grounds our academic freedom and freedom of speech in an account of the purpose of our institution,” he said. “That is to say that we’re a teaching and learning community, and because of that the freedoms that we embrace should be embraced because they make it possible to accomplish our goals. Whereas kinds of speech that are destructive to our goals, like harassment or defamation or speech that would incite violence, are inconsistent with our academic mission. It doesn’t help people discover the truth or achieve mutual understanding, so there’s no reason for our institution to protect it.”

Matthew Garza `20, President of the Student Government Association (SGA), also expressed his support for the statement in a recent Echo interview.

“In a lot of ways, the document is meant to expand what students can say and can protest,” Garza said. “It really seeks to codify and protect this idea of discourse between people who might disagree. Because Colby’s an academic institution, it wants to elevate students and faculty and staff being able to talk in a way that I think has been the case a lot of the time at Colby. Especially with students being able to protest.”

One example of protected student protest that Garza discussed was the sit-in that took place in Pulver Pavilion last year in response to “Akon Day.”

“As far as my understanding goes, technically those students could’ve been sanctioned currently because it would’ve constituted something like ‘the occupation of a campus building,’” Garza explained. “[The sit-in] would be allowed under the freedom of expression document because it was a peaceful protest. They weren’t vandalizing property or anything like that. They were completely in their right to have a sit-in.”

The finalized statement included several additional principle guidelines for expression which can be protected by the College. A draft of the statement was sent to faculty in Nov. 2018, which prompted a letter of concerns from various faculty members. The letter objected to the very premise of the task force and is currently accessible through the Civil Discourse archives on Colby Now.

“We believe that Colby is still deeply structured by racial inequalities, gender normativities, and perhaps most glaringly, economic disparities. For us, the assertion of a unified ‘we’ with a shared project is not merely objectionable (in political terms) but intellectually untenable,” it stated.

“This history teaches us as well that structures of power and their delimited modes of engagement work most ideally for those who already hold a significant measure of power versus for those whose access to power is limited or non-existent,” The dissenting letter explained. “When we over-idealize our current state of community and dictate, in advance, the narrow possibilities of dissent, we implicitly and explicitly deny voice to those with the least power.”

The task force received this criticism and worked to revise the statement to meet the concerns of the faculty. Despite these changes, authors of the original letter were still disappointed in the results of the task force.

“We did make an effort both to reach out to the authors of the letter and get their input on what we could do to change our statement in a direction that would be accommodating,” Reisert said. “And that turned out not to be very fruitful. In the revisions we made between Nov. of last year and the final version, we made a couple of changes that we thought were responses to the concerns of the dissenting faculty. In the end we didn’t satisfy them. Our position was and is that a formal set of rules that treats everybody equally, where those rules are applied with an equal spirit, we think gives everybody the best chance to express themselves and to make their mark on the community.”

On Oct. 27, SGA voted to endorse the statement. In the coming weeks, the statement will be discussed at a meeting with faculty and a motion will be put forth deciding on whether or not to endorse the report. Members of the task force, such as Ashlee Guevara `21, are also interested in continuous feedback from students.