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Free expression task force sparks controversy

By Ryan Spencer

Section: News, Top Stories

March 10, 2017

A discussion on Wednesday, March 8 that aimed to inform an 18-member task force about campus opinions on free expression asked questions such as “Do you feel that you have full access to free expression?” and “Should there be consequences for free expression?” The conversation among students grew heated, and some students feuded with campus press coverage of the event.

Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Chief Diversity Officer and a member of the task force, requested at the start of the event that students’ names not be used in the press coverage of the event so that students could feel comfortable voicing their opinions.

University President Ron Liebowitz created the Task Force on Free Expression last fall. He asked the task force to produce two documents, a statement of principles that define how the campus’ students, staff and faculty think about freedom of speech and a set of recommendations for how the administration should treat issues of speech. The discussion on Wednesday was meant to help inform the task force as they create these documents.

The controversial events that took place at Middlebury College on March 2 were a subject of constant discussion among the almost 50 students, faculty and task force members present at Wednesday’s event.

At Middlebury, protests erupted in reaction to Charles Murray, a controversial social scientist who has been defined as a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He had been brought to speak on the Middlebury campus by the school’s chapter of the conservative group American Enterprise Institute. The protests grew violent and resulted in the injury of a university professor.

Much of the discussion at Brandeis on Wednesday used Charles Murray and the events at Middlebury as a hypothetical situation. Many students who spoke agreed that the words of Charles Murray could be classified as “hate speech” and should not be tolerated at Brandeis in the hypothetical event that a campus organization wished to have him (or any other controversial individual) speak.

Raising his voice, one student shared his opinion that the university should not draw any line restricting who can or cannot speak and that those who do not want to hear an individual speak on campus about controversial issues simply should not listen. This student made a point to condemn Charles Murray despite arguing that he should hypothetically be allowed to speak on campus.

Other students retaliated, arguing that Brandeis as an institution should not condone certain speakers by allowing them to speak on campus. Students on both sides of the discussion spoke out of turn, interrupted each other and raised their voices. Some shushed one another when trying to speak simultaneously.

When a photographer from The Justice, a campus newspaper, attempted to photograph a student who was speaking from the back of the room during the heated moments of the discussion, the student requested, “I’d prefer if no pictures were taken of me.” The photographer continued to take pictures, and the student repeated her request.

While some students in the room defended the photographer’s decision to continue taking photos, on the basis that she had the right to photograph a public event, others built a human shield around the speaker to block further photos from being taken.

Students who said that “hate speech” should not be allowed on campus were asked by Brimhall-Vargas, who led the discussion, to define what qualifies something as hate speech and to attempt to draw a line for what kinds of speech would or would not be tolerable. Responses did not yield any concrete guidelines.

Several students in the room expressed concern that the voices of students with conservative viewpoints were repressed on campus due to the majority of Brandeis students being liberal.

All of the opinions expressed in the discussion were “well represented on the [task force] committee,” said Brimhall-Vargas toward the end of the discussion, which ran nearly 30 minutes over the originally allotted hour and a half period.

All of the topics raised at the discussion were noted, without attaching the names of speakers, by a university employee so that they could inform the task force as they moved forward.

In the next month, the Task Force on Free Expression will be meeting individually with groups on campus to continue discussions about free expression, according to Brimhall-Vargas.

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