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Second Free Expression open meeting yields low student, faculty, staff turnout

By Elianna Spitzer

Section: Featured, News

October 6, 2017

The Task Force on Free Expression held its second meeting on Oct. 2 to review free expression principles that will guide campus discourse. The open meeting, meant to act as a forum for students, faculty and staff to express opinions or concerns about the principles, was attended by three undergraduate students. One student was on the task force and two were part of the Student Union.

The seats in Levin Ballroom were empty at Monday’s Free Expression town hall.

The principles will guide free speech and expression of community members. The meetings on Sept. 27 and Oct. 2 did not reflect the community as a whole. The audiences were almost entirely white and contained more alumni, staff and graduate students than undergraduate students, the largest body of the Brandeis community.

Jamele Adams, Dean of Students, pleaded for more people, particularly students, to speak up about the free expression principles. Only two students spoke at the Oct. 2 meeting which was held on a Monday from noon to 1:15 p.m. Adams had no suggestion as to how to get more students involved, but expressed hope that the Oct. 30 meeting, which will be held later in the day, will have better attendance.

Students can also engage in conversation about the principles through an online forum. Students can post anonymously or have their name attached to comments about the principles.

The panel at the Oct. 2 meeting included Provost Lisa Lynch, President Ron Liebowitz, Professor Susan Dibble, Professor John Plotz and Professor Matthew Sheehy.

Liebowitz emphasized at the start of the open meeting that these principles will guide policy. The open meetings are a way to get feedback on the principles and to hear community opinions on how policy can best adhere to them.

At the Free Expression Task Force Meeting on Monday, a professor asked members on the panel whether they thought the decision to turn Buyer Beware into a course fit the principles listed in the Free Expression guidelines.

The panelists, including Dibble, Chair of the Theater Arts Department, referred to Buyer Beware as an ongoing situation. As of press time, The Brandeis Hoot is not aware of any changes to the decision to turn the play into a course for this spring.

The Hoot wrote an article last week about Buyer Beware, a play written by a Brandeis alum that was originally scheduled to be performed later this semester. The play tells the story of a white college student who uses the n-word in a comedy routine, spurring national Black Lives Matter protests. Brandeis students raised multiple concerns, including how Black Lives Matter is portrayed in the play.

Two meetings came from those concerns on Sept. 20 and Sept. 26. During the second meeting, students and faculty decided that the best way to handle the play was to turn it into a course. The play will now be performed in the spring as part of that course.

Speakers on stage expressed a greater interest in discussing policy than at the last event. When asked questions about policy, members of the panel directed those questions back at the speaker.

A staff member asked whether the principles will affect workplace conversations. Members of the Task Force responded that the principles do not trump established workplace laws and guidelines.

Several speakers again pressed the panel on the fact that the principles lack concrete definitions and distinctions. There is no definition of hate speech. The document does not address how the community should handle speech that may incite violence. One student expressed concern that some viewpoints may “shut speech down” for other students.

Lynch remarked, “I’m very sympathetic to the notions that when you are embracing free speech…we have to recognize that somebody’s free speech might, in fact, in turn, shut somebody else’s speech down. So, certainly as a provost, if a circumstance like that were to present itself, I would be working with faculty to ensure that, if there are groups that are feeling that this speech is going to shut their speech down, to find ways to empower them so that they do feel safe to speak up as well.”

Other members of the task force on stage echoed the importance of the section titled “Sharing Responsibility” as a way to combat students feeling like their speech has been “shut down.” The document reads, “The university must find ways to engage the whole community about each person’s responsibility to foster a just and inclusive campus culture so that all can participate fully in the intellectual and social life of the university.”

A staff member asked the task force members to expand on the meaning of sharing responsibility and asked how the entire community can be expected to facilitate difficult conversations. Brimhall-Vargas responded by explaining the task force debate about invited speakers.

“There was this question about the assumption of community at all, if we have a community, what are the expectations of the community members. What happens when someone brings in a controversial speaker? […] Where someone brings them in, and it’s like laying a bomb on the campus and then they wash their hands of it, leaving other people looking after it. Is that what people do in a community?” he said.

Brimhall-Vargas went on to explain that some people on the task force wanted to include a principle which would ensure that someone inviting a controversial speaker would follow up on the invitation. He did not define what this meant. Others on the task force, according to Brimhall-Vargas, were worried that asking an invitee to be accountable after the speaker came to campus would create a “chilling effect” and discourage the invitation of such speakers.

The debate “left a lot of language on the cutting room floor,” said Brimhall-Vargas. It is an example of why the document is so broad and universally appealing. The principles lack concrete deifinitions or examples of complex situations that they hope to guide. The next step for members of the administration, after the Oct. 30 meeting, is to decide how to incorporate the task force principles into policy.

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