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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Free speech, safe spaces, and HWSNBN

The recent speaker on campus has certainly sparked conversation, though for many of the wrong reasons. Everyone is sick of this topic so I will not even identify him, and simply refer to him as He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN). There are several issues related to his visit: open dialogue and free speech; hate speech and safe spaces; and the role of the University in navigating all of it.

Briefly, the new student organization, Tigers for Liberty, wanted a counter program to one on micro-aggressions. They invited HWSNBN, booked a space, and started publicizing the event before it could be vetted by staff. At that point, and because there was really no mechanism in place to cancel the event, it went on, though not without concerns. Those concerns were primarily around quality, education, and a student group being co-opted by a speaker and movement from others off campus. I think that's enough background.

Ideally, when students are subject to individual and boorish racist and biased attacks our student community will set the threshold and expectations for their environment. Part of their learning experience is to step up and push back rather than have us swoop in and save them. At the same time, the administration must always support them and declare clearly that the institution deplores such conduct.

I am a huge proponent of free speech on campus. I have deliberately avoided introducing time-place-and-manner policies because they limit and "manage" protests. Hate-speech codes have been routinely struck down by the courts. Indeed, our students are generally polite, respectful, and uncomfortable protesting lest doing so might make them seem weird. They just aren't good at it, historically. The key policies for us relate to harassment of individuals and disruption, through our Respect for Community policy. Shouting at an invited speaker for whom we might pay thousands, interrupting classes, or harassment are the primary actions that would draw conduct responses.

What students had hoped for with HWSNBN was a quality program worthy of the speakers we bring to campus as well as the educational programs we host. I did not attend, but by most accounts, HWSNBN just offered crude and shallow opinions, mostly meant to shock and incite as well as turn a profit.
My guests and teachers.

This week, at a program I hosted with the Black Student Union and the Black Male Leadership Initiative, I was asked why the University would sponsor such a speaker. The truth is, we didn't. A student group did. But we didn't stop it either. Halting a program in motion is a sure way to feed the furor of conservative groups over free speech and censorship. Which is what they often want.

The problem with free speech proponents is that while many present their political and social views under the auspices of free speech, they are often rooted in bigotry and oppression. Certainly libertarian viewpoints, capitalism, "less government" are valid perspectives and ideologies. Unfortunately for many, the progression plays out like this: we want to keep ours (resources and power)... others haven't worked for or earned theirs... others are lazy, poor, and want entitlements... these people are often not like us (white, Christian, American, wealthy)... these people are unworthy and threatening.

Yes, I know it is a generalization. But look at the national political landscape. Often, people in places of privilege got there because they had a head start, through birthright, luck, and passed-on wealth. When those who haven't been so lucky ask for respect, validation, and a fair chance, they are seen as militant or whiny or lazy. When they speak up and demand fairness, justice, and respect, then those in privileged places often push back. This is fertile ground for incredible dialogue. However, HWSNBN, and the likes of Donald Trump rarely want to engage in substantive and meaningful conversations. They zero in on the qualities they claim make others "less than." So those with different gender orientations, skin colors, and nationalities are mocked and attacked. They are restricted from bathrooms, educated in worse schools, jailed in higher numbers, kept out by walls and fences, and discriminated against because of their faith and turbans.

I am so proud of our students. I think the Tigers for Liberty, the Trinity Diversity Connection, and the Trinity Progressives are mostly educated, respectful, and open-minded. But the event with HWSNBN brought in others who resorted to chants for Trump and "White Power." Really.

When the black students I met with explained to me that this speaker created an unsafe environment for them, I had no response. They weren't just offended. They saw and heard a small number of students and a larger number of guests marginalize them in a way that was hateful and potentially violent. "How is this reflective of Trinity's values?" asked one. It isn't. We are not values free and we strive to create an environment for ALL of our students that honors their humanity.

Make no mistake, free speech is welcome, expected, and encouraged here. But using free speech as a ruse to spew hate and discrimination is a cheap trick and is disingenuous. Those in power will contend that offensive words and ideas are part of a society and come with dialogue and disagreements. Usually though, it is because they are the aggressors. Of course they don't mind. Those who are attacked don't feel that way. While I tend to agree that generally we are too sensitive and too easily offended, I also firmly believe that in order to learn from others we need to have open and civil discussions and to risk offending as a cost of learning and educating. Free speech as a mechanism for bullying, however, isn't acceptable, not just on campuses, but anywhere.

Moving forward, we will do a better job as a University in developing and producing guidelines for campus speakers and events, particularly those that draw external audiences bent on hijacking the educational experiences of our students in order to promote their own agendas. We routinely take heat for the speakers on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Those are intellectual and yes, emotional discussions on difficult topics. But these programs and others create robust and necessary conversations that are part of the educational experiences. They aren't designed to put others down.

Students like the one asking about our values are right. We do stand for something. And if we want a diverse community we have an obligation to protect and nurture it. It is our responsibility to vet the speakers, not for their ideas, but for their value and for their adherence to ideals of respect and conflict with civility. We need that on campus and students here should demand it. How else will they know how to demand the same when they face similar issues out in the world once they graduate? There will be many more Milo's. Students need to know when and how to call them out. And they need to know them by name.They have had a good start.


Tom Doody said...

You are insulting Lord Voldemort with the comparison to Yiannpooulos (hah!). But seriously, great piece and glad you are a stalwart of leadership, fairness, and open-mindedness at Trinity. Never retire!

Michael Viney said...

Great piece is a challenging time for our students and you are leading by example and prose in how to respect free speech while identifying speech that is hateful and bullying.

John blomquist said...

"If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear"
- George Orwell

" For, while the 4 letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most of its genre, it is nevertheless true that one man's vulgarity is another's lyric"
- Justice John Marshall Harlan

Please just make sure our children go out in this world with the knowledge that in this great country the 1st amendment of the constitution does not classify types of speech allowed, but at it's very foundation it guarantees us freedom of ALL speech.