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Brandeis releases free speech and expression principles

The Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to adopt the “Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression,” a set of six principles that guide free expression on campus, according to President Ron Liebowitz in an email sent out to the Brandeis community. The Presidential Task Force on Free Expression was created in Nov. 2016 by President Ron Liebowitz “to come together to reflect on and re-examine our university’s policies and practices related to academic freedom and free expression.”

The 18-member committee, led by Professor George C. Hall (ECON), included students, a general counsel and representatives from almost every department on campus. Hall was at first apprehensive about leading the committee, but realized how he was more able to fill the position. “I have nothing to lose by doing this. I’m not vulnerable in that regard. It also needed to be someone who was committed to being at the university for the long term,” Hall said in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot.

“I’m also someone who, if in the process I ruffled some feathers, it was going to be okay,” He continued. “I was also somebody who could speak bluntly. I could speak frankly to the president [Liebowitz] and I don’t have to be worried about being fired.” Hall also commended Liebowitz for taking on this difficult topic and having a conversation about it with the Brandeis community.

The committee held community-wide meetings with the Brandeis community to discuss matters of free expression and sought to involve as many groups on campus, including the College of Arts and Science, The Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the Rose Art Museum.

“It’s a issue that there’s a lot of passions about and you know on this campus people speak frankly, or we hope people speak frankly,” Hall told The Hoot. Hall went on to explain that the committee didn’t get the opportunity to speak to everyone they had hoped, but the group of people that they did speak to helped them shape how they wanted the principles to come across.

The first principle, “Maximizing Free Speech in Diverse Community,” states that all members of Brandeis should have the ability to put forth ideas for others to consider, engage and criticize and the university has the responsibility to encourage such discussion, regardless of the topic of matter. “We want a place where everybody feels that they can speak up. And not only that they feel they can speak up but everybody does speak up. We want it to be noisy,” explained Hall.

The second principle, “Developing Skills to Engage in Difficult Conversations,” pushes Brandeis in “reaching out fullest potential” with a curriculum that will expose students and the community to the viewpoints of others. “All this will require the intellectual courage to risk discomfort for the sake of greater understanding,” as stated in the principles.

The third principle, “Sharing Responsibility,” states that all members of the Brandeis community need to take responsibility for their actions and the impact of their actions on the general community. “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,” the principles stated.

The fourth principle, “Rejecting Violence,” says that while peaceful protest is completely legitimate, physical violence is not allowed.

The fifth principle, “Distinguishing between Invited Speakers and University Honorees,” states that Brandeis should provide any necessary spaces for outside speakers, however, “there are certain circumstances, especially the granting of honorary degrees, in which an invitation issued by the university does constitute an endorsement of some major aspect of their life or work.”

It goes further to say that any protests against the university for making a “disfavored choice,” of a person to honor is not necessarily an attack on free speech.

The sixth principle, “Institutional Restrictions,” which was added later in the drafting process, allows Brandeis to restrict certain expression that “unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests.” It clarifies that the principles do not allow individuals to say “whatever they wish, whenever they wish, or however they wish.”

In an interview with The Hoot, Hall said that the committee looked at the University of Chicago free expression principles and a statement from Cornel West and Robert George. West and George are two public intellectuals from opposite sides of the political spectrum who released a joint statement in support of “truth seeking, democracy, and freedom of thought and expression,” after students protested a Middlebury College guest speaker resulting in the injury of a professor.

Part of West and George’s statement reads, “Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking.”

The University of Chicago released a report from the university’s own committee of free expression, detailing their principles. Part of the statement reads, “Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community ‘to discuss any problem that presents itself.’” The principles also clarify that this freedom “does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.”

Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas worked on the principles after he was hired in January of 2017. In an interview with The Hoot, Brimhall-Vargas spoke about how the principles related to the Ford Hall protests. “I think it would be disingenuous to say that the creation of the Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression had no connection to Ford Hall,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “How could it not? Ford Hall was a very significant moment in our campus’ history with respect to protecting protest and freedom of expression.”

Ford Hall refers to a set of two protests in 1969 and in 2015. In 1969, around 70 African-American students held an 11 day sit-in in the Ford and Sydeman Halls and released a list of 10 demands asking for better representation on campus. Though not all the demands were met, the protest did lead to the creation of the African and Afro-American Studies Department (AAAS), according to a Heller School for Social Policy and Management article.

In 2015, a group of students issued a list of 13 demands calling for more black faculty and students at Brandeis, more programs to increase racial awareness and the establishment of a university Ombuds service, according to an original copy of the demands from the Facebook group of the organizers. The protesters staged a 13 day sit-in until an agreement was reached with the university administration, according to a Heller article.

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