Free Speech Discourse on Campus

By Phoebe MacCurrach ‘18

Herald Staff

On the Friday before spring break at noon, President Gregory Vincent ’83 sent out an email with the subject “Diversity of thought and the First Amendment Right to freedom of speech.” The email addresses his belief in the importance of complying with the community standards, he even included a link to an online version.

The email’s focus was on the importance of allowing free speech on campus. It began, “As an institution of higher education, Hobart and William Smith are bound to foster, as our Community Standards note, ‘an environment in which all ideas can be reasonably proposed and critically examined.’ …Because we value academic freedom and freedom of thought, we necessarily value diversity of thought and the First Amendment Right to freedom of speech.”

President Vincent went on to mention the many speakers brought to campus by academic departments and student organizations “share their diverse experiences, knowledge, opinions and ideals with our community and our friends and neighbors in the region.” He regards these speakers and their wide variety of platforms as an important part of “the essential [discourse] to the vitality of our academic community on campus as it is to navigating the world beyond the Colleges.”

He then stated that he is aware of the conflict some of these speakers cause but the importance of this type of exchange in what the community standards refer to as “the pursuit of knowledge,” however these speakers are also “entitled to and responsible for maintaining an environment of civility that is free from disparagement, intimidation, harassment and violence of any kind.” Vincent goes on to acknowledge students right to peaceful protest as well as responsibility for their actions. He finished the email with a reference to the Supreme Court: “In our campus community, each and every one of us must strive for an atmosphere of reasoned discourse and intellectual honesty, with an understanding of mutual respect and shared openness to constructive change. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes — and Oscar Wilde — and George Orwell — true freedom of speech and thought demands that we defend and uphold it for everyone, especially for those with whom we disagree.”

The email sparked a lot of controversy as well as confusion. Many were confused by the timing and lack of context for the email. Students could not reply all, but faculty were able to respond to the email for everyone to see. Many students expressed their frustration at their inability to join the conversation about free speech. As for the speakers being brought to campus that caused an upset among students, many have been brought by the Young Americans For Freedom, whose club description states, “YAF chapters bring together students to advocate for the ideas of limited government, individual freedom, free enterprise, traditional values and a strong national defense. YAF chapters can provide a visible presence for the Conservative Movement, energize other students, and encourage them to speak out.” Many people on campus have been aware of the controversy these speakers have sparked, even the faculty sending out emails about the speakers. President Vincent, however, noted that his email was not sent in regards to a specific incident on campus.

The leaders of the HWS Young Americans for Freedom were asked for an interview for this article, but declined the opportunity.

One student, Carlos Robles, the junior class Hobart president, took it upon himself to make sure the entire student body – and President Vincent – heard that there were students out there who disagreed with the sentiments stated. Robles used his former position on the Campus Activities Board to send out a mass email to students stating his feelings on the topic. Robles began his email, “I have been trying to articulate this in a way that expresses my emotions when it comes to this topic, but also in a way that is productive. Although I do believe that as members of the HWS community we should put ourselves out of our comfort zones, I will not do this if it puts me in the way of hate speech and targeted comments.” He went on to describe how students particularly students of color and other minority students, feel targeted by some of the speakers being brought to campus.

Robles goes on to state, “These discussions have not been at all thought provoking because they are based on opinions and hate. As a student of color on campus who is constantly targeted from other students, faculty, and staff I refuse to acknowledge these opinions as opportunities for education and communication. These discussions are filled with hate and it should not be my responsibility to go into this space, in which I do not feel safe to stand up for myself. Nor should it be my job to explain why these discussions are hateful and these speakers do not have a place on our campus.”

He then refers back to President Vincent’s inaugural address and one of the four pillars of effort that was addressed: “The elevation of inclusive excellence and diversity as a key strategic priority.” Robles addresses the President one last time, “You came to this campus with the goal and vision of creating a campus with inclusive excellence and diversity, but this email has completely gone against your initial goal and promise. As a student who saw you as a new opportunity for change, I am very disappointed.”

Robles finishes his email with a call to action for faculty and staff, “In times like these, I hope that faculty and staff members who disagree with an email like this, and the culture that it is striving to create, will stand up and articulate against the hatred and impropriety in this rhetoric. Since I have been a student at the Colleges, I have heard that professors and staff are striving to create a classroom environment that is accepting and safe for all, and I ask that these members stand up and put these words into actions as opposed to favoring the learning environment of a few.” Because the CAB email does not have permission to email faculty and stuff, the message was forwarded to them by others.

These emails sparked a response from Justin Rose, a political science professor who serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice (DESJ) Committee at the colleges. He addressed the efforts DESJ had been making prior to the emails to come up with a response plan to having controversial speakers on campus. Solomé Rose, the interim Chief Diversity Officer for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the colleges (who left the colleges for a job with Planned Parenthood at the end of Spring Break) led this effort following suit with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In his email, Professor Rose makes a point not to name the other members of the committee because only one of them has tenure. This brings up the ongoing fear that faculty on campus without tenure have regarding their ability to act on social justice issues without seeing repercussions, which was confirmed by a number of faculty members who wish to remain anonymous. He ends his email by expressing his wish to support to those like Robles who feel targeted by speakers that are coming to campus.

Professor Jodi Dean, from the Political Science department, also replied to the email. She brought up the difference between free speech and academic freedom referencing an article by Joan W. Scott, “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom.” Professor Dean states that the article suggests to her “that campus questions (especially in a private liberal arts college) are better understood in terms of academic freedom than they are free speech. They suggest as well the obligation educators have to discern between competent and incompetent work and not to yield to the pressure of well-financed purveyors of racism, sexism, and bigotry. Colleges are academic settings; they are not states. Therefore colleges and universities are under no obligation to invite to their campuses those who undermine the practice of academic freedom. Indeed, colleges may well determine that it is antithetical to their mission to host any who would denigrate members of their community.”

President Vincent, who’s only response to these emails was to Jim Crenner, Professor Emeritus of English, who replied to Vincent’s original email saying “Hear! Hear!” to which Vincent replied thanking him and referring to himself as a “1st Amendment purist.” When asked in an interview with the Herald what caused him to feel the need to send out the initial email, he stated, “I think this is such a key issue, not just on our own campus, but college campuses generally, and I was very impressed with our community standards, that I just thought that it would be good to affirm that. […] It was just the variety of issues that came up – students coming to talk with me about their issues, about both  the ability to bring speakers with different viewpoints to students feeling that they were not safe on campus. I thought it was important as the new president to reaffirm that I believe in the community standards and that all views should be considered, expressed, debated, and challenged, and it be done in a very respectful way, and at the same time I think it’s important that our students feel safe on campus.”

President Vincent continued, “I think [there are] two challenges that we face: one is that technology has put so much in your face and over and over again, and I am concerned about fake news and I am concerned how some news is manipulated, and so I think it becomes even more important that you challenge ideas and that you just don’t take things at face value, that you do your own research and your own analysis so that on your own you can figure those things out. I’m actually inherently suspicious of information that validates my existing view because you tend to go toward those things that you already agree with. On the other hand I am very interested to see and read about viewpoints that are very different than mine, I think that getting that from reliable sources is critical.”

When asked if he would handle the situation differently if he had the chance to do it again he said, “No, and I can’t say that I am [surprised at the reaction from the faculty] I think that this is a very intimate community and I think it feels more like a family so I think it felt more like a heated family discussion and it was good. I think that what I think went especially well is that if any student feels that they have concerns or that they feel unsafe that they have the ability to directly contact me via email or phone and some students have so I just want to have that level of accessibility with our students that they know that their president is here.” He also said he did not plan to address the issue any further, stating, “No I don’t think it’s necessary, I think the community standards are very clear, I think it encouraged people to read them.”

In speaking with Carlos Robles about what happened, he stated, “there is just a lack of transparency between what the administration is doing and what the students are asking them to do. I think that is the main part of what is adding fuel to the fire.”

He went on to explain that he feels that there is never any context given with Vincent’s statements nor is there any transparency in the many conversations he is having with different students about these issues, which makes it difficult for people to understand what is actually happening, “but the way he sent out the email without any context, it basically rubbed everyone the wrong way, it basically said that if you feel uncomfortable or if you feel targeted there is basically nothing we can do about it because we allow for everyone to say and do as they please.”

Robles made it clear that he is one of the students that had spoken with President Vincent about these issues in the past and encouraged others to do so: “If you have a problem with President Vincent and the way he is working email him directly and be blatant, be confrontational, and if he has an issue with the way you are saying things he will invite you to his office and that’s when you can talk to him in person, it may seem disrespectful at the time, but there is only so much that minority students can take.”

Robles also spoke about his frustration with Vincent’s encouragement to deal with issues as a student body because there are only so many ways to go about reaching the entire student body without the assistance of a faculty member. “I feel like we as students need to continue to fight against administration and staff who are very complacent to these issues.”

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