The Collegian
Thursday, July 09, 2020

OPINION: The Responsibilities of Free Speech at UR

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

The University of Richmond recently advanced one step closer to adopting a new policy protecting free expression. Months after finalizing recommendations for the proposed policy, the presidential Task Force on Free Expression publicly released its Recommended Statement on Free Expression (I encourage UR students, staff and faculty to submit feedback on the draft statement, which you can do online here after entering your login credentials).

The recommended statement offers UR students, staff and faculty the right to free expression, no matter how unwelcoming, immoral, offensive, harmful or even untrue the content of their speech. According to the statement, the only limits to such sweeping protections include: expression that incites “imminent lawless action,” defamation and harassment against a specific person. The statement also recommends that UR reserve the right to “reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression” to minimize disruption to ordinary university activities.

The statement would also grant individuals the right to “contest ideas expressed on campus and to criticize speakers who have been invited to present their views.” Although “the University itself need not remain neutral in regard to ideas or beliefs expressed on campus,” I’m worried the proposed free expression policy, on the whole, places the responsibility on individuals to contest offensive and harmful ideas. As the statement articulates, “it is for the members of the University community to respond by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose, not by seeking to suppress speech.” In other words, if something said bothers you, it is on you to do something about it.

I propose, then, that the recommended statement give equal, if not more, consideration to the responsibilities that come with our right to free expression. At the baseline, we should educate ourselves on the First Amendment, including the ways in which free speech has repeatedly been weaponized to undermine civil rights and diversity and inclusivity efforts, and even silence professors whose work is critical of the status quo

We cannot simply pride ourselves on an anything-goes and self-centered understanding of free speech to honor our collective commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. Rather, we must educate and empower ourselves to express ourselves in ways that serve a greater good.

I draw here from black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s call for intellectual activism — “the myriad ways that people place the power of their ideas in service to social justice." Specifically, she charges scholars (and students) with the twin obligations to “speak the truth to power” and to “speak the truth to the people.”

Rather than simply speaking “freely,” faculty should guide their students in critically examining university leadership, policies and decisions, university messaging and communications, and what is taught in students’ coursework. In addition, students should be trained to carefully articulate those criticisms in ways that foster productive change. 

Let’s equip UR students to use their voices as tools to call out injustice and to amplify voices that are often censored, distorted, co-opted and silenced — ideally taking these skills into their lives beyond college. Self-interest should not override their commitment to fairness and justice. 

We should also support our students in speaking truth to people outside of UR, particularly communities that cannot access or afford higher education. There are many avenues for community engagement provided through the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, among other opportunities.  

Upon receiving world-class liberal arts training, UR students must learn how to use their brilliance and creativity to educate and inform whomever they encounter beyond their time at UR. This could be as small as a conversation with one’s younger cousin about the significance of the #MeToo movement or summarizing research on environmental racism for a local environmental advocacy organization. 

Unfortunately, more often than not, the burden to speak up against injustice falls to people of color, women, queer and trans people, poor and working-class people, Muslims and other religious minorities and other marginalized groups — people who are forced to contend with the preponderance of racist, sexist, hetero- and cissexist, classist, Islamophobic and xenophobic ideas that pervade content in the media, popular culture, religious teachings, laws and policies and even course curricula. This emotional labor is uncompensated and risky, often occurring in a context of unequal power relations — whether between a student and her professor, a pre-tenure professor and their department chair or a staff member and his supervisor.

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As such, UR must take responsibility for empowering every member of the campus to speak truth to power and speak truth to the people — to feel it is everyone’s responsibility, as a Spider, to speak with purpose. The laissez-faire, or hands-off, approach only exacerbates inequality on campus and in the broader society. UR must provide platforms for its most marginalized individuals to express themselves, as well as protections against backlash from those who feel that their privilege is threatened

Take, for example, a recent letter from UR’s Office of International Education to international students discouraging use of social media for “advocating protest or condemning the US government in the current climate.” Rather than simply scaring them about the potential risks of speaking out against state-sanctioned violence against Black Americans, UR should support students to weather such risks and provide them the tools to safely and effectively speak out. Indeed, to quote the good (Audre) Lorde, “your silence will not protect you.”

We can offer more than the bare minimum of the protections outlined in the first amendment to comply with federal mandates motivated by political agendas. And, we can do better than be an uncritical follower in the University of Chicago’s Chicago Principles, which offer near-complete regulation-free speech. 

At the University of Richmond, we can put forth a free expression policy that grants the right to free speech but still holds us accountable for the consequences of our speech. To be a Spider should mean speaking with integrity, purpose and compassion. 

Contact contributor Eric Anthony Grollman at egrollma@richmond.edu.

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