To acquire wisdom, one must observe

President Liebowitz writes to Brandeis community about free speech

On Jan. 17, Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz sent an email to Brandeis students, faculty and staff titled “Free Expression in the Academy.” The email began by acknowledging that Brandeis is “not the only campus struggling to find the best way to have respectful discourse and to share knowledge and learning from various perspectives,” adding that “to further address the challenges regarding speech that we, and higher education more broadly, are facing, I will be appointing a task force whose charge will be to review the university’s existing ‘Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression.’”

President Liebowitz went on to say that “a campus-wide committee developed our current principles, which the Board of Trustees approved in September of 2018. Much has transpired since 2018 that relates to freedom of expression, and so it will be helpful to review those principles along with the processes we use to apply those principles to our academic and co-curricular activities. The creation of a task force on free expression has been the subject of a motion passed by the faculty and I have solicited input from the Faculty Senate Council on nominations for task force membership.”

He added that “members [of the task force] will need to consider how best to balance the goals of inviting a full and free exchange of ideas with the need to ensure a safe learning environment for students, faculty, and staff,” and continued by reviewing “some basic facts about freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of higher education.”

Liebowitz wrote that Brandeis’ mission, and the purpose of higher education is “hindered when ideas are suppressed directly or through self-censorship due to public and peer pressure or intimidation,” noting that he has “heard from too many students who have expressed concern and disappointment with the campus climate on account of the polarized and contentious nature of campus discussions, their fear of stating their opinions, and the vitriol they have been subjected to on social media.” He added that some parents had expressed concerns for their students’ safety, saying that “the administration takes the safety of all students, faculty and staff in the community very seriously—it is our highest priority, even when it challenges the university’s deep commitment to free expression and support of student activism.”

President Liebowitz also said that “A major cause for disagreement and tension over the setting of limitations on some forms of speech and activism has been a lack of understanding of: (1) to what extent ‘freedom of speech,’ which is protected by the First Amendment, applies to universities and, in particular, to private universities; (2) what ‘academic freedom’ means and how that relates to the classroom; (3) how federal law and guidance intersect with and influence free speech rights; and (4) how a university’s code of conduct factors into the mix and influences university policy.” He explained that “Since First Amendment protection is protection ‘from the government,’ there is a different legal standard when it comes to such protection at public (government-related) institutions versus private institutions” He explained that “private institutions, such as Brandeis, are legally able to develop individual policies and principles related to speech based on a framework other than the First Amendment.” He added that “Claiming that individuals can say whatever they wish, whenever they wish, and wherever they wish because it is protected by the First Amendment is both incorrect and a flawed defense of one’s actions in the name of free expression. And it should be obvious, free speech cannot be selective—unfettered in some situations and restrained in others, depending on one’s ideology.”

The president also wrote about academic freedom, defining it using the Association of American University Professors’ terms: “the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities … [but faculty] should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matters which are unrelated to their subject, or to persistently introduce material which has no relation to the subject.” He added that academic freedom, too, has boundaries, saying that “academic freedom does not extend to a physicist, teaching a course on thermodynamics, who uses class time to encourage students to sign petitions to ban books at local schools.” 

He also touched on Brandeis’ codes of conduct as they apply to unprotected speech that creates a “hostile learning environment”, saying that Brandeis must comply with Title VI and Title IX regulations or “risk losing critical financial support for faculty research and student financial aid.” Liebowitz added that, 20 years ago, Title VI was extended to include Jewish students. He also noted that in November of last year, “Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon sent a letter to colleges and universities, reminding them of the expanded requirements associated with Title VI,” reminding them that they must “provide all students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics … including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab or Palestinian.”

Liebowitz wrote that this might seem “arcane, especially if one views ‘free expression’ as having no limits. But we are an educational institution, not the public square, and a most critical task of ours is to ensure a learning environment that promotes, rather than hinders, the pursuit of truth, the creation of knowledge, and our students’ ability to engage freely in their educational pursuits.” He added that he is “confident that members of our community can express even the most controversial or contrarian views in an effective manner, without provoking, intimidating, or harassing others.”

Following the teach-in that the university held near the end of last semester, Liebowitz encourages “us all to come to those [informal and formal] discussions [surrounding difficult topics] with open minds, a willingness to listen to opposing views—especially from those with expertise in the subject matter—and respect for those with whom we might vehemently disagree.”

The president closed by noting that, in the past, Brandeis has “taken the road ‘less traveled by’ and set the standard for higher education. One of those was a commitment at its founding to be the place that was welcoming to all who were academically meritorious no matter their race, gender, religion, or politics.” He said that Brandeis’ first class found the “freedom to test their own new ideas in class, but also the expectation that they would routinely challenge their classmates.” He added that Brandeis should now “follow their lead” and “again set the standard for higher education.”

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