SGA Debates the Future of Free Speech on Campus

By KYLE NAUGHTON

On April 30, Feb Senator Rae Aaron ’19.5, First Year Senator Jack Goldfield ’20, and Ivan Valladares ’17 presented their Academic Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Resolution to the Student Government Association (SGA). The legislation called for Middlebury College to reaffirm its commitment to the preservation of free speech by allowing outside speakers to present controversial views without fear of disruptive protest.

The bill’s cosponsors argued that such a resolution would work towards fostering an open and inclusive atmosphere where opposing viewpoints may be properly debated without the presence of censorship or unruly violence. Proponents for the resolution asserted that the goals of free speech and social justice are not mutually exclusive and that this resolution would still protect students’ right to constructive protest.

“The resolution brought forward was one which we felt could lay the framework for any conversation on campus through reaffirming Middlebury’s commitment to free and diverse speech,” Senator Goldfield said. “We branded this resolution as one about discussion.”

The strongest opponents of the bill argued that it would threaten students’ right to justified and necessary disruptive protest in the future in favor of an ill-defined notion of free speech. Many senators also felt uncomfortable about voting on this legislation while many Middlebury students faced charges related to the Charles Murray protests.

When the Senate reconvened on May 7th, the resolution’s cosponsors were intent on putting their legislation to a vote despite President Toy’s suggestion that they table it for next year. Senator Aaron and Senator Goldfield asserted that many of their constituents desired such a reaffirmation now, and that pushing off the vote would only be perceived as an aversion to discussing free speech.

President Toy then proposed the inclusion of a friendly amendment regarding community wellbeing and an unfriendly amendment that called for the removal of certain “whereas” clauses. Senators may propose unfriendly amendments to proposed legislation that the Senate may vote to include; if the authors accept these amendments, the changes become friendly amendments. After the cosponsors of the bill rejected this unfriendly amendment, the resolution was brought to a vote and eventually rejected with a tally of 9 opposed, 6 in favor, and 4 abstained.

Senator Aaron was particularly disappointed by these results. While she admitted that the resolution did not attempt to define free speech or hate speech, she still considered this resolution to be a necessary step towards countering the divide on campus regarding social justice and the freedom of expression.

“The fact that this resolution on free speech and viewpoint diversity didn’t pass is quite concerning,” said Senator Aaron. “It really brought to light the failure on behalf of the SGA to unify around the importance — especially for marginalized voices on campus — of having the right to express ourselves, exercising judgment on what is appropriate.”

Senator Aaron also expressed her dissatisfaction with the way in which fellow senators approached the resolution after it was first presented on April 30.

“[One senator] cowardly refused to share the resolution with [their] constituents and attempted to table the resolution in the middle of our conversation,” Aaron said. “President Toy had all week to propose friendly amendments, and instead chose to force unfriendly amendments to undermine the integrity of the resolution’s message. [Also,] the Senators who sponsored a bill on updating College protest policies failed to even show up to the [May 8] meeting [to vote].”

Ivan Valladares ’17 echoed Senator Aaron’s concerns, interpreting the SGA’s approach towards the legislation as an offense against freedom of speech within Middlebury.

“Narrow interests and cowardice at the SGA attempted to make this resolution irrelevant,” Valladares said, “instead of utilizing this opportunity to establish a much-needed baseline on how to proceed with dialogue on campus. Short-term pursuits have limited students to regard free speech as a dispensable issue, or worst, a partisan ploy.”

Senator Pustejovsky, who voted against the resolution, argued that such legislation was presented at a particularly difficult time on campus when many Murray protestors are going before the judicial board.

“For me, the college community has not even scratched the surface on what free speech means to us, and what it should look like on this campus,” said Senator Pustejovsky. “Pushing a bill through Senate to make a statement about [free speech] left me feeling out of touch with the greater conversation as a whole. I also was worried about the way protest as a viewpoint was clearly undervalued and rejected in this bill, which felt like it was ignoring the larger issue at hand.”

Senator Fleischer echoed many of Senator Pustejovsky’s concerns regarding the bill’s timing, adding that such legislation would contradict the Protest Policy Reform Bill passed on April 23.

“Just a few of [the resolution’s] problems,” Fleischer said, “[regarded its position] that non-violent disruptive protest is never justified, its direct contradiction to the recently passed Protest Policy Reform bill, and its asking for administration to ‘enforce the policies as set forth in the Student Handbook.’”

Senator Wilson disagreed that the resolution was presented at an inappropriate time, attributing attempts to table the bill to fears of negative mainstream media coverage.

“I think there was an effort to table the bill until next year,” Wilson said, “because some think it reflects poorly on the College for a bill affirming free speech to fail. [Certain] senators said they believed it was an inappropriate and insensitive time to pass such a bill when so many students are currently going before the judicial board. I understand that argument, but I think it is overly concerned with perceptions and optics of the bill rather than with what the bill is actually saying.”

President Toy maintained that the bill was introduced too quickly to properly address the issue of free speech on campus. 

“My biggest concern was that this bill was be being voted on at the same time that the judicial proceedings against students involved in the protests are occurring,” President Toy said. “This was a very comprehensive bill being voted on in a fairly rushed manner, when the student body has just started making progress in conversations on what free speech means. I would rather Senate get it right than vote down a well-written but not yet perfected bill, which is unfortunately what happened.”