Greene announces plans for a committee to define free speech, protest

At a faculty meeting on Feb. 11, President David A. Greene announced the formation of a committee to examine student protest on campus. The committee will include students, faculty and administrators who will convene to discuss the College’s stance on issues of free speech and dissent.

According to Provost and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer, the formation of the committee was not prompted by a specific protest or event on campus. Rather, it transpired from an ongoing discussion among faculty and administrators about what it means to be a community of teachers and learners with respect to free speech and, more importantly, potentially objectionable free speech.

“It is important that we, as a community, articulate and codify a clear position on free speech and dissent. It is not for me to simply state the College’s position,” Greene said in a written statement. “It is essential that we have a representative group from the campus [to] consider the many complex issues…and recommend a set of policies or practices for the campus.”

Greene’s goal is to appoint a group that will bring a variety of perspectives to these issues and consider how they speak to the College’s mission and values. The committee will then make recommendations that will be “vetted widely,” he said, and give rise to a broader campus conversation.

One of the most salient issues for the committee to consider is the College’s interpretation of the term “free speech.” For example, the group will discuss situations in which protest directed toward a certain group or individual may border on harassment. “It’s for the committee to decide how far free speech can go,” Kletzer said, and when—or if—free speech can become inappropriate.

“We’re trying to find ground on which there is understanding of how we all exercise our rights of free speech and protest and dissent,” Kletzer said.

Though “there are always limits on such issues, at times defined by legal statute or case law, at other times shaped by community norms and values,” Greene said, he will ask the committee to “weigh the relevant trade-offs and to make recommendations using their best judgment.”

“It’s not about restrictions,” Kletzer said. According to Greene, discussion of where the College stands on free speech does not necessarily mean that the committee needs to find boundaries to set in place.

The committee speaks to the idea that Colby is “a place that really embraces and celebrates the free exchange of ideas, and that we need to be a place that is genuinely open to free expression,” Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Terhune said.

Proactivity is another key motivation behind the formation of the committee. “I think we can have a better campus conversation, a more thorough conversation, now, as opposed to when we actually have protest and dissent,” Kletzer said.

The College’s administration has considered prominent incidents at other American colleges and universities over the past year and a half. In his remarks to the faculty at the Feb. 11 meeting, Greene alluded to protests last spring at Smith, Rutgers, Brandeis and Haverford, all of which led to cancellations of commencement speakers.

For example, Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from Smith College’s commencement a week before she was set to speak at the event, citing student protests against her and the IMF. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from Rutgers’ ceremony for similar protests against her role in Bush administration foreign policy.
“My guess is that the president wants to act prophylactically to avoid any such unpleasantries at Colby,” Associate Professor of Government Walter Hatch said.

According to Kletzer, if a similar incident were to happen at Colby, the administration would not revoke the speaker’s invitation. “We don’t shut down the speech. We listen, respond, react, but we don’t turn away,” she said.

At the same time, Hatch was “delighted to hear, in [Greene’s] comments about campus protest, a willingness to explore whether the College should host speakers who are unwilling to take questions,” he said.

“In my own view, we shouldn’t. Free speech is a two-way process. Any prominent person, including a commencement speaker, should have to entertain questions from members of the Colby community, though, obviously, not at the graduation ceremony itself.”

He recalls an event years ago when Colby Republicans brought former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum to campus. According to Hatch, Santorum spent almost an hour responding to questions from students who were upset by his views on abortion, birth control and LGBT rights. “It was a great event because it was a lively conversation, not another top-down talk,” Hatch said.

Hatch believes that students and faculty can be expected to behave “uncivilly” when controversial figures not only speak without taking questions, but also receive the College’s approval through conferral of an honorary degree.

“If, for example, Colby were to give an honorary degree to Dick Cheney, and he were to speak at commencement, I can almost guarantee that I would be there, with many others, protesting his speech,” he said.

While other colleges and universities refer to long-established documents and reports to guide their policies on free speech, such as the University of Chicago and its 1967 Kalven Report, Greene plans for a diverse group of faculty and students to collectively decide where Colby stands here and now.

“My view, as I have stated a number of times, is that our mission demands that we be a place that is open to the widest array of perspectives, that supports free inquiry and speech, that encourages dissenting opinions, and that recognizes protest as a viable and valuable form of expression,” Greene said.

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