Faculty Approve Statement on Academic Freedom
Issue   |   Wed, 05/04/2016 - 00:41

A majority of the faculty voted to approve the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom during a faculty meeting on Tuesday, May 3. The statement, which lays out and clarifies the college’s position on freedom of speech and expression, was written by the Committee of Six.

Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought Lawrence Douglas and dean of the faculty Catherine Epstein presented a draft of the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom during a meeting of the Association of Amherst Students the previous day. At the end of the meeting, senators expressed their views on the statement through an unofficial vote. Eleven senators approved of the statement if additional amendments could be made and six senators approved of the statement as it was presented, according to AAS secretary Silvia Sotolongo ’19.

Recently elected AAS president Karen Blake ’17 and vice president Chico Kosber ’17 attended the faculty meeting. Kosber read a statement on behalf of the AAS, which expressed concerns about clarifying the college’s role and what is considered proscribed speech under the statement.

“I also attempted to raise the concern that it seems like oftentimes, large-scale policy or structural changes are made during periods at the college where students are unable to participate fully in the dialogue,” Blake wrote in an email. “During finals period, students are busy with work and are thus unable to attend meetings to express their sentiments or even take the time to fully consider the implications of a statement like this.”

During the AAS meeting, Douglas, a member of the Committee of Six, began by reading a statement prepared by the committee about the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom. Over a year ago, the Committee of Six received a letter from Trent Maxey, professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations, asking the committee to draft a statement on academic and expressive freedom. After deliberation, the committee drafted the statement, joining other universities such as Purdue, the University of Chicago and Princeton in doing so.

According to the Committee of Six, the college’s faculty handbook and student honor code contain some clauses pertaining to freedom of expression and dissent, but these are not sufficient in expressing commitment to academic freedom, which the committee members believe is integral to the exchange of ideas and diversity on campus.

“Our decision was borne of the concern that academic freedom is facing multiple challenges around the country,” Douglas said, adding that the decision to draft such a statement was made last year, before protests against racism and discrimination at Amherst, as well as the University of Missouri, Yale and other colleges, took place. He said that while there were limits to expressive and academic freedom in certain situations, the Committee of Six believed that “the scale should always continue to tilt in the direction of that freedom.”

Before bringing the draft of the statement to the senate meeting, the Committee of Six had discussed the text of the proposed statement with the Committee on Educational Policy, the College Council and the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. These groups provided feedback that guided re-drafting of the statement, Douglas said. He added that a concern raised by members of these groups was about academic and expressive freedom pertaining to staff of the college, since the current language in the faculty handbook and honor code only refer to faculty and students and not visitors, speakers, researchers or any other college-affiliated personnel. The new statement contains language that seeks to encompass staff members of the college community, Douglas said.

Douglas and Epstein then answered questions from attendees, which included AAS members and at-large members of the student body.

Several questions raised by students pertained to details in the wording of the statement. Andrew Lindsay ’16 expressed concern that the term “reasonable limitations” in the third paragraph of the text was vague and could potentially be used to suppress student protests such as Amherst Uprising, which took place last semester.

The statement says that “The College may properly restrict speech that, for example, is defamatory, harassing, invades a protected right to privacy or confidentiality, constitutes incitement to imminent violence, or otherwise violates the law. It may place reasonable limitations on the time, place, and manner of expression, and may restrict speech that directly interferes with core instructional and administrative functions of the College. But these restrictions and limitations must be understood as narrow exceptions to the College’s overriding commitment to robust open inquiry.”

Douglas responded that the new statement did not differ fundamentally from the college’s current policy on freedom of speech and expression. He said that the language of the statement is meant to offer more concrete protections of speech and that the college could only restrict speech and expression when such actions were either illegal or in violation of “time, place and manner restrictions.”

“All First Amendment protections recognize that there have to be limits on where speech takes place and how it’s uttered,” Douglas said.

Regarding regulation of student protests, Douglas said that the college can remove protesters if they interfere with “core functions of the college” for a prolonged period of time, but added that the college already has this ability. Later, Epstein said that Amherst Uprising did not disrupt any functions of the college, so the administration could not limit that protest.

Servet Bayimli ’16 asked for a clearer definition of the term “the College” as it is used in the text of the statement. Epstein clarified the use of the term, saying that it referred to the college’s administration. Hao Liu ’16 said that the term “the College” seemed to be used differently in different contexts in the statement and that the distinction may not be obvious to all readers.

Discussion also focused on the subject of microaggressions. Blake asked about where microaggressions would fit into the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom, considering that they are not necessarily harassment or an invasion of privacy.

Douglas responded that because the term “microaggression” is not clearly defined, there needed to be more discussion about the term’s definition.

“We’re trying to set the scale in the direction of free and robust discussion,” Douglas said. “My default position, to answer your question, would be that this protects microaggressions. Again, we’d have to talk about what microaggressions actually look like.”

“It’s a separate issue from this statement,” Epstein said. “I think the chief diversity officer coming in is likely to do some programming around microaggressions, but it’s separate from this.”

Lindsay also said that the statement “feels undemocratic and contradicts the principles of the college,” adding that there should be a democratic process to reach a consensus among students and faculty about what should be considered restricted speech.

Douglas responded that the definition of free or restricted speech could not be decided by the community but would be set forth by the college.

“The community as a whole cannot decide where free speech begins and ends,” Douglas said.

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