Faculty Debate Free Speech Handbook Policy

By Will DiGravio

A group of faculty members presented a motion to add a “Freedom of Expression Policy” to the “General Information” section of the College handbook at the April 9 Faculty Plenary meeting.

The following professors submitted the motion: Assistant Professor of Religion Ata Anzali, Assistant Professor of Political Science Keegan Callanan, Fulton Professor of Humanities Stephen Donadio, Frederick C. Dirks Professor of Political Science Michael Kraus, Associate Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers, D. E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing Jay Parini, Curt C. and Else Silberman Professor of Jewish Studies Robert Schine, Associate Professor of Mathematics John Schmitt, Russell J. Leng ‘60 Professor of International Politics and Economics Allison Stanger and John M. McCardell Jr. Distinguished Professor Don Wyatt.

Their motion comes in the midst of on-campus debates over free speech and inclusivity in the wake of student-led protests that prevented Dr. Charles Murray from delivering a scheduled lecture on March 2. The faculty group emerged out of an informal conversation about the future of free expression at Middlebury.

“There are several places in the handbook that address academic freedom in one way or another,” Myers said. “But they all have local purposes and don’t provide a complete, coherent, clear statement of policy that protects the whole community — faculty, staff, and students as well as any guest they invite.”

“Because the College is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the College community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn,” reads their motion. “It is not the proper role of the College to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

The motion emphasised that one of the purposes of higher education is to serve as a place where contrasting ideas can be presented and discussed.

“In a community striving toward this end, free speech protects the right of all individuals and groups to be heard. We recognize the uneven burden that freedom of speech can impose on under-represented minorities. By the same token, minorities often stand to lose the most under regimes of restricted speech,” the motion reads.

It also acknowledges that freedom of speech does not protect all kinds of speech.

“The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish,” said the motion. “The College may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the College.”

Although part of the motion was drafted by Middlebury faculty, it also proposes the adoption of the University of Chicago’s “Freedom of Inquiry and Expression” policy and the AAUP’s statement, “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes.”

After Myers, Anzali, Callanan and Donadio presented the motion to the faculty, Professor of Film & Media Studies and American Studies Jason Mittell, speaking on behalf of more than 30 faculty members, introduced a substitution motion to delay considering the proposal. Faculty spoke against the proposal not necessarily due to the content of the motion, but because of the timing, process and way in which it was introduced.

The faculty who drafted the substitute motion met on April 5, and decided to reject debating the “Freedom of Expression Policy” because they believe that it is necessary to discuss the College’s shared values before discussing future policy implementations. They also believe that policy changes should not occur in the midst of investigations into the protests on March 2.

“There are disciplinary actions currently underway concerning a number of our students, and potentially even our faculty and staff colleagues,” Mittell said. “Changing our handbook language in ways that pertain to those investigations and accusations in the midst of the proceedings is potentially damaging to the integrity (perceived or in practice) of our judicial process.”

He also argued that the passage of such a motion would only strengthen current political divides on campus.

“Presenting this policy now will be treated as a referendum on the March 2nd event, and our current factionalization will become even more polarized and destructive,” he said. “Regardless of its intent, this motion will be regarded by many as a direct rebuke against colleagues and students, rather than a sincere statement of principles. Even some who agree with the spirit of the policy will always regard it as tainted by politics.”

Mittell ended his remarks by saying that the passage of such a motion should not be done without consulting students and staff. The motion that he introduced recommended that changes to the handbook regarding free speech should be discussed and drafted by the ad hoc committee of students, faculty and staff that will soon be established by the Office of the Provost.

“We ask that one goal of this joint committee will be to consider and offer recommendations for actions, policies and statements that can help us move forward and assert shared community values which all constituencies can commit to collaboratively,” reads the motion. “We also ask that relevant policy recommendations should be considered by this joint committee before being addressed by other policy-making bodies, to ensure an inclusive and deliberative process.”

After Mittell made this motion, Associate Professor of Political Science Bertram Johnson offered a friendly amendment to change the language of the last line from “addressed by” to “voted on.” This friendly amendment, while accepted by Mittell, has not yet been approved by the faculty. It will require a vote at the May plenary meeting.

Per Robert’s Rules of Order, the discussion then turned into a debate between the two motions. Several faculty members supported the substitute motion and the delay of the first motion, citing that the introduction of the first motion was done too soon. Other faculty members spoke in favor of the first motion, and argued that, by delaying discussion of the “Freedom of Expression Policy,” the substitute motion limited the ability of the faculty to debate issues of free speech.

“From the outset we made it clear that we had no intention of trying to ram [the first proposal] through without time for consideration and debate. We have brought it forward as one discussion point in a broader conversation about our values as an academic community,” Myers said. “The original version of the substitute motion was quite shocking to me in that it gags and binds the faculty in addressing any concrete proposals related to the Murray incident until next winter. The ‘friendly amendment’ removes the gag, but I’m still quite troubled that some colleagues want to constrain faculty governance.”

“If passed, the substitute motion would have been a novelty in the annals of faculty governance: a faculty voting to forbid itself from discussing something,” Callanan said.

However, those who supported the substitute motion argued that delaying discussion and a vote on the “Freedom of Expression Policy” did not limit the faculty’s ability to talk about the issue, rather, it allowed for the faculty to engage in a conversation about these values with the broader community.

“The initial motion frames the entire conversation around the free speech policy proposal on the faculty floor, which drastically limits what issues might be addressed and who can participate. Our substitute motion embraces multiple issues beyond just free speech, such as inclusivity, diversity and community, and brings students and staff to the table as well,” Mittell said. “Our colleagues on Faculty Council and the Provost’s office are sponsoring many opportunities for community discussions on these issues, so I see no lack of open conversations in a wide range of

venues. In short, our substitute motion actually aims to broaden the terms, scope and inclusivity of speech about the March 2nd events and their aftermath.”

After a lengthy debate at the April 9 meeting, the faculty did not vote on the two proposals. Debate will continue at the May 16 meeting which will be held at 3 p.m. at Wilson Hall in the McCullough Student Center.