Final free expression meeting generates debate

November 3, 2017

The opinions, emotions and heartfelt beliefs of more than 30 members of the Brandeis community filled the Intercultural Center Lounge Monday night in a discussion meant to provide feedback on the Draft Principles of Free Expression and Free Speech released earlier this semester.

This discussion marked the final of three open meetings scheduled to discuss the draft principles “before they are shared with the Board of Trustees and adopted to guide university policy,” according to the Brandeis website. The principles, as they stand, do not represent policy, according to administrators. They can be accessed on the Brandeis website by anyone with a Brandeis login.

Conversation hinged around which argasoices the university was willing to prioritize and whether allowing certain kinds of speech might psychologically harm marginalized groups or make students afraid to voice their opinions.

“The fear that’s being centered [in the draft principles] is the fear of not being able to share an opinion when marginalized folks on this campus have psychological, physical, emotional, so many ongoing fears that are happening on a systemic and interpersonal level,” said one student.

In response, a member of the Brandeis community asked, “Are there limits of what can be demanded in the name of social or physiological safety?” The question never received a direct response and another question was posed.

“My question is, where is the conversation about power, privilege and oppression in this document?” replied an alumnus of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management who said she participated in Ford Hall 2015.

Attendees used hypothetical examples based on situations which have affected universities nationwide multiple times to test the limits of the draft principles.

Some members of the Brandeis committee argued that controversial speakers who have hate-filled ideologies could destroy the principles of inclusivity and diversity which the university is supposed to uphold. One undergraduate said many students, “came [to Brandeis] because they believe the entirety of the campus is committed to social justice.”

Others saw educational benefit in being introduced to controversial viewpoints. The undergraduate task force member Charlotte Aaron ’18 described herself as a “Jewish person” but said she “would love to sit down and talk to a Nazi.” She said that the hypothetical conversation could fulfill her personal and academic curiosities.

Another undergraduate argued “to be truly open minded you actually need to open your mind and listen, you don’t have to agree.”

Mark Brimhall-Vargas responded to the student, saying, “I don’t know how you identify yourself but visually I identify you as a white male person. As a person that’s a male and a person with white skin, I don’t have my identities assaulted and so the notion that you can take it or leave it is something of a luxury.”

Students, alumni and faculty grappled with whether or not speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer would be allowed to speak on campus should a student or group wished to invite them.

In response to the question if anyone could potentially be brought to campus, one task force member replied yes. Brimhall-Vargas, said, “I think the yes is qualified.”

“You’re right on the edges of where there was a lot of disagreement in [the task force],” Brimhall-Vargas said. He argued that, in his opinion, a speaker like Yiannopoulos would be unacceptable at Brandeis because of his history of “overtly attacking particular students.” Yiannopoulos is a member of the alt-right who has spoken or planned to speak at colleges such University of California, Fullerton and University of California, Berkeley.

Early in the event President Ron Liebowitz spoke of an Oct. 19 lecture by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, at the University of Florida. Liebowitz used the lecture—protested by hundreds of students—to highlight the nation-wide struggle of colleges and universities attempting to grapple with issues of free speech.

The hypothetical examples elicited questions about the responsibility of the students or groups who invited controversial speakers in dealing with the “aftermath” and “cleanup” of such an event. In the course of the discussion, “aftermath” and “cleanup” came to mean both the psychological burden which the words of a speaker such as Richard Spencer might afflict on some members of the student body and the financial burden involved in providing adequate security for a contentious event.

Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida cost the school more than $600 thousand in security, according to a CNN report.

Brimhall-Vargas argued that those who brought controversial speakers had “at least partial responsibility to be there until it’s all cleaned up.” He continued, “It isn’t right that people wipe their hands when the event is over like nothing happened.”

Task force member John Plotz, an English professor, agreed with the sentiment of holding accountable people who bring controversial speakers but said the task force struggled with how to implement this idea.

Brimhall-Vargas posed a suggestion to hold post-event discussions where students could confront the educational aspects of a controversial speaker. He also suggested that these discussions could be help prior to the event. None of these suggestions made it into the draft principles. Members have stressed the principles are guidelines and have not yet been translated to policy.

During the discussion, attention turned to section two of the draft principles which says “to introduce prior restraint by attempting to define realms of prohibited speech would be for the administration to produce a chilling effect upon speech and the exchange of views on campus.”

Plotz called this sentence “a pretty robust statement.”

“The place that we did not agree, after that statement, was what happens when the rubber-meets the rope,” added Brimhall-Vargas. “This is a problem that remains unresolved.”

Brimhall-Vargas questioned, “But then what happens if we have no prior restraint?” He argued that if there is not a process to address who could come to campus then whoever you invite shows up, making it difficult to grapple with the sense of shared responsibility outlined in principle three.

Midway through the event, a writer from The Justice who covered the event responded to Brimhall-Vargas’ opinion on Yiannopoulos, asking, “Do you think that there is something concerning about basing university principles around what you or any individual or any group of individuals considers acceptable or unacceptable?”

Brimhall-Vargas, who said he felt accused by the reporter’s question, replied that the task force did not base principles around any one individual’s opinion. He also added that, in his opinion, “advocates for free speech and free speech absolutism were more well represented on the [task force] than the reverse.”

Some copies of the draft principles handed out at the event contained a sentence at the end of principle four which was not contained on the version online. The sentence stated that free expression and violence should not be conflated.


Charlotte Aaron, the undergraduate task force member, is a senior editor at The Hoot.

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