Faculty seeks to modify freedom of expressions on campus

 

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Sewanee: The University of the South. Photo courtesy of Sewanee’s Flickr.

 

By Richard Pryor III
Executive Staff

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).

 

11 thoughts

  1. Dean Papillon’s use of the term “hate speech” and voicing his commitment that “students should feel secure” at Sewanee is a non sequitur and problematic. Of course students should feel secure at Sewanee in terms of personal safety, privacy in their dorms, confidentiality of their grades, and integrity of the administration and faculty. But to raise the spectre of “hate speech” as something to protect the students from is nonsensical and completely extra-Sewanee experience as cultivated from the University’s inception to now.

    I invite the good Dean, the members of the faculty working group, the drafter of the resolution, and current students to provide even one example of what constitutes “hate speech” that warrants prior restraint when existing standards of good manners and whatever vestiges of the notion of the Sewanee Gentleman that remain are followed whenever one expresses themselves in such a fashion.

    I also find it very telling that a current Sewanee sophomore is sincerely worried about the possibility that “ugliness” can be engendered among the Sewanee Community from the mere presence of certain speakers on campus to such an intensity that his safety and that of his classmates would most likely be threatened: “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).

    If the existing roster and leadership of the Sewanee Police Department is viewed as understaffed, impotent, or clueless as to available measures to protect the student body from anarchists from within or without, then appropriate informational efforts need to be deployed instanter to allay Caleb’s fears along with those who share his voiced concerns.

    If Caleb’s concerns are justified, then Dean Papillon, the Vice-Chancellor, and the Trustees must immediately convene whatever task force they deem appropriate to provide the necessary recommendations to them for bringing the SPD up to current standards of readiness. (In fact, our local Sheriff Rick Wells is available as a resource person to explain how he and his Deputies handled a situation this past year. Just let me know and I will facilitate a consultation).

    1. Response to comment on The Sewanee King Jesus WindowTM FB Page:

      ” Bill, while your participation in the discussion is appreciated, I believe that if you will read the Sewanee Purple article again, you will see that you have confused social media trolls and politically staged public demonstrations with the prior restraint of the subject matter that an invited speaker can speak on. “The University will soon develop a process to allow objections to speakers brought on campus by various organizations.” Also, attempting to compare the faculty’s efforts to impose prior restraint of what is deemed by them to be “hate speech” is inapposite to allowing sanctions for yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater.

      Instead of insulating students from “hate speech”, I suggest that lifting up Jesus and His full gospel will truly prepare them for honest debate today, and full engagement with the “real world” after graduation. Jesus offered Himself as THE way, THE truth, and THE life, and that no one proceeds to His Father except through Him (Jesus). Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

      “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free… Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, … if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” LOOK at the Window! https://www.facebook.com/sewaneekingjesus/

  2. It would be more accurate to say that the faculty resolution calls for a transparent process of adjudicating restrictions. We are in favor of free speech in virtually all cases, but recognize that at some point there may be an objection raised about some speaker. If there is a call for a restriction, I’d like to see the matter considered by a small committee (made up of students, faculty, and administrators) not by the VC or Dean alone.

    1. Would you be so kind (as well as transparent) to share with us what examples you and the other members of the University’s faculty envisioned as exemplars of the speakers or topics that would be considered worthy of convening the requested “Star Chamber” for consideration of censorship of invited speakers to the University? Justifying prior restraint of free speech in safe settings complying with reasonable time and location restrictions (NOT content restrictions) is anathema to the notion of a free marketplace of ideas. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. In your hypothetical you employed words like “virtually all”, “may be”, “an (undefined) objection”, “some (nondescript) speaker” which, for some unexplained reason, will automatically trigger consideration of restrictions based merely on some ethereal “call for a restriction”. The Founders of the USA in writing the US Constitution considered “We the People’s” right to free speech sacrosanct as evidenced by the exclusion of any delegation of power by the States to the federal government relating to the regulation of this God-given right (Article I, section 8), buttressed by the absolute, mandatory command of the 1st Amendment: “Congress SHALL make NO law… abridging the freedom of speech…”. The drafters of the Tennessee State Constitution followed suit: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions, is one of the invaluable rights of man and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty. (Article I, section 19).”

  3. “The University will soon develop a process to allow objections to speakers brought on campus by various organizations.” How did you get from speakers to events?

    1. I’m still waiting for you to tell us just one of the “examples you and the other members of the University’s faculty envisioned as exemplars of the speakers or topics that would be considered worthy of convening the requested “Star Chamber” for consideration of censorship of invited speakers to the University?”

      Since you’re the one pursuing prior restraint of an invited speaker, you go first.

    1. Ditto. Dusting off the good ol’ faithful ad hominem cloaking device I see. So much for your notion of transparency. Any other faculty members willing to engage with an alumnus a la Gil Gilchrist, Red Lancaster, Brinley Rhys, and their colleagues?

      Or has their style of robust engagement with their students in class, at the union, outside the Sup Store, in their home or office, or wherever and whenever else the opportunity arose, also Gone with the Wind in similar fashion as the ceremonial mace, the State flags in All Saints, our Founders’ statutes, or the emphasis on our alma mater being known as The University of the South?

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