By Richard Pryor III
On October 13, the faculty unanimously passed two resolutions in response to the national debate on freedoms of speech and expression, committing themselves to supporting freedom of expression as well as calling for restrictions. The University will soon develop a process to allow objections to speakers brought on campus by various organizations.
In late August, Dr. Chris McDonough, Professor of Classics, convened a working group to create a faculty resolution on freedom of expression. The group included history professor Harold Goldberg, classics professors Paul Holloway and Stephanie McCarter, politics professor Rodelio Manacsa, English professor Jennifer Michael (C’89), rhetoric professor Sean O’Rourke, philosophy professor James Peterman, art professor Greg Pond (C’95), and Spanish professor Ruth Sánchez (C’86).
During the next month and a half, the working group drafted a resolution based on an initial draft from Manasca, whom Peterman said “was able to bring a Sewanee context to this national debate.” After receiving comments from faculty via a Google Doc, the group finalized the resolution and submitted it to Dean of the College Terry Papillon.
The most important part of the resolution, according to McDonough, is the document’s calls for restrictions, as he believes that “we can’t say anything goes, there needs to be limits.” The limits the resolution suggests are in line with directions given out by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as well as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that keeps tabs on free speech issues on campuses across the nation.
The first resolution focused on two main points: support for academic freedom and freedom of expression, as well as reasonable limitations on the freedom of expression. In the words of the resolution, the faculty “support the broadest possible freedom of expression throughout the University” and believe that they should “encourage discussion with mutual respect and welcome opportunities for education about contentious issues rather than interdiction.”
However, they also believe that “‘living together in unity’ necessarily requires us to accept limitations on our actions for the benefit of all.” Specifically, the resolution calls for a “transparent process of adjudication that guarantees due process for all involved” be employed. The faculty passed another resolution afterwards, charging the administration that a transparent process “be formulated and submitted to the faculty for discussion.”
The reaction to this draft on campus has been mixed. “I think it’s a good idea because in the modern world, there are certain speakers that will lead to ugliness on this campus. This plan should be adopted as a measure of safety more than anything,” said Caleb Thorn (C’20).
However, some students expressed doubt about the resolution’s possible effects on bringing speakers to campus. Sydney Peterson (C’18), co-director of the Bairnwick Women’s Center commented to The Purple that “The Bairnwick Women’s Center is incredibly appreciative and honored to be given autonomy at Sewanee concerning our events. While we seek to challenge the Sewanee campus by bringing in sometimes provocative speakers, we understand that the liberty of free speech does not exempt us from consequences and/or objections. I believe Sewanee should not prohibit speakers. Rather, Sewanee should unify by peacefully and thoughtfully protesting to refuse sexist, homophobic, racist, classist, transphobic, and other discriminatory behavior and practices on our campus. This rejection should derive from a unified student body, faculty, and staff.”
When questioned, Papillon said that there needed to be a “line between freedom of expression and hate speech,” and he affirmed that “students should feel secure” at Sewanee. However, he did repeat an idea he has used at each orientation during his Sewanee tenure: being uncomfortable and being challenged are part and parcel of the liberal arts education. Papillon hopes to have a plan ready for public comment this semester.
He sees two ways forward for the College on this issue. First, the Vice-Chancellor could be asked to deal unilaterally with any objections to speakers. Another option could involving creating a panel of faculty, staff, and students to deal with objections.
No matter the final plan, community members will be offered a chance to share their opinions, as Papillon noted that any plan required “buy-in” from everyone. Papillon also committed to ensuring that the process is fair “no matter who the power group is.”
Vice-Chancellor John McCardell has not publicly commented on this issue. However, in a recent article for Sewanee magazine entitled “The Contest of Clashing Viewpoints,” he writes that “at Sewanee, civil discourse and respect for the dignity of every human being are at the core of our institutional culture.”
The following professors signed on as co-signatories to the resolutions: Rob Bachman (Chemistry), Mishoe Brennecke (C’84, Art History), Manuel Chinchilla (Spanish and Italian), Bill Engel (English), Kelly Malone (English), Deb McGrath (Biology), Tam Parker (Religion), Wyatt Prunty (C’69, English), Emily Puckette (Math), Ken Smith (Earth and Environmental Systems), Jeff Thompson (Art History), Lauryl Tucker (C’99, English), Chris Van de Ven (Earth and Environmental Systems), Steve Raulston (C’81, Spanish), and Jim Peters (Philosophy).