Charlotte Aaron, Features Editor and Undergraduate Student Representative to the task force, was not involved in the writing of this editorial.
A Task Force on Free Expression should represent the opinions of all members of the community. It should uplift all student voices, even those that may be unpopular, but especially those that are systematically marginalized. And it certainly should instill trust in the members of the community it claims to represent.
However, as seen at the open forum on Wednesday, March 8, this is not always the case with Brandeis’ Task Force on Free Expression. The goal of the open session was to discuss what University President Ron Liebowitz called in a campus-wide email “a shared understanding of what free expression means and how it relates to one’s education.” Debate erupted between attendees about what freedom of speech should entail on a college campus and how much responsibility the administration has to address students’ concerns about unchecked free expression at Brandeis.
In Liebowitz’s email inviting students to the open forum with the task force, he referenced the recent events at Middlebury College in which Charles Murray, a notoriously racist, misogynistic and homophobic social scientist, was prevented from conducting his scheduled speaking event due to student protests. Liebowitz specifically wrote that “such behavior cannot and will not be tolerated on our campus.” Yet by promoting his own agenda before the forum even began, he has already set the stance that the task force will take, making it seem that its position is firm regardless of what feedback it gets at the meeting. This discourages students who have dissenting opinions from feeling listened to and as if it is worthwhile to share their opinion. In the spirit of fostering free expression, shouldn’t he have abstained from defining his opinion until the subject had been thoroughly discussed?
During the meeting, a black female student interjected in the conversation, and a white male student shushed her. As moderators of the event, the task force is responsible for setting the tone of the conversation, but no one on the task force stepped in to mitigate the situation. “Shushing” particularly is a silencing tactic that is disproportionately used against black women and shouldn’t be tolerated in a discussion on free expression. Moreover, it demonstrated why the task force is not earning the trust of marginalized students on this campus. When the task force—the people charged with finding out how students feel about free expression—is not actively enabling historically silenced voices, it is falling short.
This is part of why the demographic of Wednesday’s meeting was mostly white and vocally conservative. Brandeis and the task force have earned these students’ trust through numerous instances of shutting down or not uplifting the voices of those who are not white and conservative, simultaneously losing the trust of those whom they have ignored or actively silenced. If attendance is not reflective of the entire Brandeis community, the omitted opinions prevent the task force from coming to a comprehensive conclusion about campus opinion on free speech.
Even though the task force is made up of 18 people, only two are students—and only one is an undergraduate. Since this task force is setting principles and recommendations for the whole campus, which is majority students, it is our opinion that one undergraduate representative is not enough. How can one person, regardless of their ability and background, be expected to represent 3,600 undergraduate students? She is charged with representing the majority of people who will be affected by the task force’s recommendations, yet as one person, simply cannot represent the entire student body. Additionally, student representation should be most significant from those most affected by hateful speech, but as seen from the task force’s current record, these are not the voices being prioritized.
The task force has been charged with producing its two documents by the end of the semester, which is still two months away. In this time, the task force can and should take this criticism to heart and make it a priority to seek out the widest range of voices, not just the voices of the people who feel most comfortable speaking. Earn the trust of these students by listening, uninterrupted, to them and promoting spaces where they will be heard. Listen to students who know, based on personal experience, that bigoted speech is not just controversial—it is violent speech that affects them in their daily lives.