The Collegian
Wednesday, July 08, 2020

UR releases recommended freedom of expression statement

<p>President Crutcher speaks at his State of the University address.</p>

President Crutcher speaks at his State of the University address.

President Ronald Crutcher released the University of Richmond’s Recommended Statement on Free Expression in an email to the UR community on May 7.

“At the University of Richmond, speech may not be suppressed, nor speakers disinvited, simply because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be unwelcome, untrue, immoral, or deeply offensive,” according to the statement. 

The statement, dated December 2019, was developed by members of Crutcher's Task Force on Free Expression, which comprises UR faculty and administrators. 

The task force convened in May 2019 and was charged by Crutcher with “reviewing history and policies related to freedom of expression and academic freedom at the University of Richmond and drafting a statement to guide our shared institutional understanding of these concepts,” according to UR's webpage about the Free Expression initiative.

The first phase of the task force's mission — the "investigation phase" — entailed researching scholarship on free expression and reviewing free expression statements of other institutions of higher education to determine whether UR should even have a statement, according to the initiative webpage. The task force then voted on whether to proceed with drafting a statement for UR, with all members voting in favor of a statement, according to initiative wepbage. All four phases of the task force's process are discussed on the webpage.

In his State of the University Address on September 18, 2019, Crutcher said the task force would submit a draft statement to him by the end of the fall 2019 semester, and that the statement would be a topic of ongoing discussion throughout the spring 2020 semester. 

It is unclear why the statement was released to the UR community this May rather than in December 2019 — as it is dated — or sometime earlier in the spring 2020 semester. 

Kurt Lash, the chair of the task force, did not respond to The Collegian’s request for comment. 

On October 25, 2019, the task force presented a draft of the recommended statement to students who were recommended by UR administrators and student government presidents, said Sam Burns, a junior who reviewed the October draft. 

"There is a serious suppression of speech going on on this campus that we are not talking about and I personally don’t believe that this statement addressed that issue,” Burns said. 

“That’s the answer I gave [the task force] then, and it’s the answer I give them now, which is that there is a serious problem with speech suppression, but it’s not happening as explicitly as people think it is. It’s coming from a campus culture that makes a lot of people feel unsafe speaking out against certain things or being fully themselves.” 

Junior Alec Greven said after Crutcher's May 7 email that he thought the statement was an affirmation of UR’s commitment to inclusivity, diversity and belonging.

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In February, Greven and Jessica Flanigan, professor of politics, philosophy, economics and law and a member of the Task Force on Free Expression, received a $3,500 grant from the Institute for Humane Studies, according to a February 27 media release

With the grant, Greven and Flanigan will develop the “Free Inquiry Toolkit,” a guidebook with the goal of advancing free speech on college campuses, over the summer, according to the media release. 

“We are arguing that free expression is compatible with the ideals of a well-functioning university and that speech codes are counterproductive to achieving their stated aims,” Greven said.

Greven has been fighting to get a university statement on free expression for the past three years, he said.

“[UR] is a private university, so there is no specific obligation to protect free expression,” Greven said. “However, I think that free speech is crucially connected to the mission of an institution of higher education to search for truth and share knowledge with the world.” 

Junior Kexin Li, president of WILL* and The Vagina Monologues, said free expression is the foundation of inclusivity and that she was grateful that the statement made clear the limits of free expression at UR. 

“I do, however, see some limits in the statement in terms of how to implement the prevention of some hate speeches,” Li said. “I hope [the finalized statement] will say something about how to use free expression to create the inclusivity that we need at this campus.” 

Sociology professor Eric Anthony Grollman said they remained unconvinced that UR’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity demanded an equally strong commitment to freedom of expression, as written in the recommended statement. 

"This policy, in whatever form it takes once formally adopted, will be hollow if the university fails to actively work to ensure marginalized students, staff and faculty feel empowered to speak in public spaces, if it fails to amplify the voices of marginalized individuals, if it fails to take seriously the safety and well-being of marginalized individuals rather than compromising it for outside speakers’ right to free speech at UR," Grollman said. 

Crutcher wrote in a July 10, 2018, Hechinger Report op-ed that conservative viewpoints are most likely to be suppressed in current campus climates, citing a Knight Foundation Gallup poll

“It still remains unclear to me why this policy is needed,” Grollman said. “I suspect that President Crutcher’s free speech campaign serves as a distraction, or perhaps a compromise to appease conservative donors, trustees and prospective and current students.” 

Junior Olive Gallmeyer said they also did not think the statement is necessary. 

“The thing that was most worrisome about the [statement] is that it mentioned there would only be consequences to speech if it was targeting a specific individual,” Gallmeyer said. “And the issue is that there’s been many incidents where speech doesn’t necessarily have to be targeting a certain person for it to be hurtful or harmful.”

The recommended statement restricts speech only if it incites imminent lawless action, falsely defames a specific individual or targets a specific individual with threats or harassment, according to the statement. 

The statement encourages students to respond to harmful language and ideas by openly and vigorously contesting them, according to the statement. However, public speakers and others’ freedom of expression may not be obstructed or otherwised interfered with, according to the statement. 

It is important to note that all protests must be registered with the Events Office 48 hours before they take place, according to the UR Standards of Student Conduct.    

Next fall, Crutcher and Provost Jeffrey Legro will meet with representatives from campus organizations to discuss the recommended statement and consider changes to it, Crutcher wrote in the May 7 email. Members of the UR community can submit their suggestions and feedback about the statement online

Crutcher plans to have a finalized statement by the end of the fall 2020 semester, he wrote in the May 7 email. 

Contact features editor William Roberts at william.roberts@richmond.edu. 

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