Riggs Charges Panel to Draft Statement on Freedom of Expression

Students listen to Robert Spencer's lecture last May (Photo Jamie Welch / The Gettysburgian)

Students listen to Robert Spencer’s lecture last May (Photo Jamie Welch / The Gettysburgian)

By Benjamin Pontz, Managing News Editor

The TL;DR

  • President Janet Morgan Riggs has appointed a committee of seven to draft an institutional philosophy on freedom of expression
  • The committee has, to date, met with faculty and the Board of Trustees, and it plans to meet with student groups in the coming weeks
  • A draft statement will be released to the campus community by the end of the semester
  • Early next semester, faculty and the Board of Trustees will vote on its adoption

Five months after suggesting that Gettysburg College needed an “affirmative statement related to freedom of expression” in an email to the campus community, President Janet Morgan Riggs has appointed a committee of seven to develop such a statement.

The committee, chaired by Associate Provost for Faculty Development & Dean of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Programs Jennifer Bloomquist, met last week with the faculty as well as the Board of Trustees to begin gathering input from stakeholders on what should be included in such a statement, which Bloomquist emphasizes will be an institutional philosophy, not policy.

Throughout the remainder of the month, the committee will gather input from student groups, including Student Senate, with the goal of releasing a draft statement for campus review by the end of the semester. Ultimately, the Board of Trustees and faculty will vote to ratify the statement, which Riggs hopes will happen early in the spring semester.

This process comes after the Young Americans for Freedom invited Robert Spencer, Director of Jihad Watch and a FOX News contributor, to speak on the “political ramifications of Islamic fundamentalism” last May, which generated a torrent of discussion over what limits the college can and should impose on freedom of expression. The college hosted a counter-speaker, Todd Green, an associate professor of religion at Luther College, and students held a solidarity rally concurrently with Spencer’s lecture.

In August, Riggs defended the college’s treatment of the situation in an interview on The Gettysburgian‘s podcast, “On Target,” noting that the college followed guidelines for handling controversial speakers released subsequently by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Asked directly whether, in hindsight, she would have approached the situation the same way, she said, “I would — and there may be some on campus that are appalled by that statement, but I know there are others who thought that was the right thing to do… I do value freedom of expression, and I think we have to value that on a college campus.”

Riggs charged the new committee: “(1) To lead campus discussions about freedom of expression, with the goal of educating our campus community on this topic as well as soliciting input for an institutional philosophy regarding freedom of expression. (2) To develop a statement of institutional philosophy that will provide context and guidance for decision-making and for the development and revision of related policies.”

The members, all appointed by Riggs, are:

  • Bloomquist, chair
  • Ivanova Reyes, Assistant Professor of Economics and member of the Faculty Council
  • Hakim Williams, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies
  • Jeff Foster, Associate Vice President of College Life and member of the Student Life Committee
  • Patrick McKenna ’20, Chair of the Student Senate Policy Committee and Senate Parliamentarian
  • Jeff Oak, Trustee and Chair of the Trustee Academic Affairs Committee
  • Jim Banks, Trustee and Chair of the Trustee College Life Committee

Michael Mancuso ’19, Chair of the Student Senate Opinions Committee, objects to the composition of the committee, asserting that students are not appropriately represented since McKenna was not appointed through Senate. Also, he is concerned that, because the committee met first with faculty and the Board of Trustees, student consultation is a formality.

“The administration has a history of making decisions and asking Student Senate about it afterwards. I hope this time is different.” Mancuso said. “Also, their rationale for choosing Pat McKenna is flawed. While Pat is certainly interested in matters of policy and is undoubtedly competent, it cannot be said that he is representative of students as a whole.”

McKenna declined to comment for this article.

Mancuso said he plans to introduce a formal opinion questioning the process in place that he hopes will be on the agenda at Monday’s Senate meeting.

Bloomquist said that the sequence of consultation reflects only time constraints beyond her committee’s control and that the committee is eager to hear student input.

“It’s not merely a formality to talk to student groups—it’s just that the working group was under the time constraints imposed by the calendars for the faculty and board of trustees meetings,” she said, noting that the Board of Trustees meets only three times each year. “We’re hoping to meet with as many campus constituencies as possible, so I encourage your readers to contribute to the discussion if they can.”

She said campus community members can submit input through this web form.

Zachary Sobeck ’20, Co-President of College Republicans, hopes the committee does not deviate too far from the status quo, noting that Riggs has indicated that the college would handle future controversial speakers similarly to how they approached the Spencer situation.

He said, “Overall, I would say that freedom of expression is not an area where more restrictions are necessary.”

Andrew Dalton ’19, Vice President of College Democrats, declined to comment for this article.

Although the primary purpose of the committee is not to develop new college policy, policies will be revisited after the statement is adopted.

“We already have some relevant policies, so the first step would be to review the policies we have to see if they need revisions or additions, given the new philosophy statement,” said Riggs. “New policies would be developed by the appropriate groups.”

The current policy governing freedom of expression, which was approved by the Student Life Committee in April 2016, quotes a passage from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ opinion in Whitney v. California (1927) that states, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence,” and provides limits on the time, manner and place of public expressions of opinion, but it does not offer such concrete limits on the content of speech.

“The [new statement of] philosophy is not intended to rework past policies,” said Bloomquist, “just to provide some overarching guiding principles that reflect our institutional values.”

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Author: Benjamin Pontz

Benjamin Pontz '20 serves as managing news editor of The Gettysburgian, a position he has held since the middle of his first year, during which he wrote 50 articles on topics ranging from student activism on campus to sports. Ben also served as the event coverage and social media coordinator and led the paper's inaugural efforts using Facebook Live and live tweeting events on campus. He is a political science and public policy double major with a minor in music, and he reads up to seven newspapers daily. Follow him on Twitter @benpontz.

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