FIRE Commends Gettysburg’s Freedom of Expression Statement, Urges Revisions to Campus Policies

(Photo courtesy of Gettysburg College)

(Photo courtesy of Gettysburg College)

By Benjamin Pontz, Editor-in-Chief

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan group that promotes individual rights, especially free speech, on college campuses, released an article commending both the approach and the result of Gettysburg College’s yearlong process to develop an affirmative statement of philosophy on freedom of expression.

Beginning in the fall of the 2017-18 academic year, on the heels of Robert Spencer’s May 2017 visit to campus, which sparked considerable debate over the bounds of freedom of expression on campus, Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs charged a panel to gather input from campus stakeholders and draft a statement of institutional philosophy to guide future decision-making and policy development on freedom of expression. After a series of town hall meetings and the release of a draft statement that was subsequently amended to remove a clause that said the college may seek to restrict speech that violates its policies on non-discrimination, the statement went to Student Senate and the faculty for discussion and approval. The process ended in May when the Board of Trustees officially ratified the statement.

FIRE, which has frequently opposed and attacked campus speech policies it views as restrictive and in violation of First Amendment rights to free speech and has encouraged campuses across the country to adopt some form of the “Chicago Statement,” which Gettysburg’s statement mirrors, lauded Gettysburg’s statement for its strong defense of freedom of expression.

“FIRE applauds this comprehensive approach to adopting an institutional statement on free expression,” the article, written by FIRE program officer Mary Zoeller, said. “The Philosophy will not only guide the Gettysburg community in handling future free speech issues, but also broadly envisions a campus culture in which ideas — popular or not — are expressed, discussed, and debated.”

FIRE specifically cited a passage in Gettysburg’s statement that encourages “more speech” in response to speech with which one disagrees, which refers to former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ opinion in Whitney v. California (1927), as “perhaps the best element of the Philosophy.”

Zoeller said in an email to The Gettysburgian that the process Gettysburg used in adopting the statement is more inclusive than what other institutions have done.

“Often, we see unilateral adoptions of free speech statements by just the administration, or just a faculty senate,” she said. “However, Gettysburg demonstrated a comprehensive approach to tackling this important endeavor by including many different stakeholders.”

Associate Provost Jennifer Bloomquist, who chaired the committee that drafted the statement, appreciated that the article was complimentary and that it referred to Gettysburg as a leader in undertaking such a process.

“It reinforces what I have been saying over the past couple of months, that an inclusive process was essential to the development and ratification of the philosophy,” she said.

Patrick McKenna ’20, who was the student representative to the committee, concurred, adding that the leadership and vision for such a process came from the top, which gave credibility to the committee’s work.

“I am pleased that the leadership of President Riggs and the excellent work she did in creating an inclusive process that was carried out by the campus working group in drafting an all-encompassing philosophy with regards to freedom of expression has been recognized on the national level by a venerated organization such as FIRE,” he said.

McKenna added that he looks forward to the review of college policies that will begin this fall to ensure alignment with the institutional philosophy.

Despite FIRE’s support for the new statement of philosophy, it believes several campus policies have potential to restrict freedom of expression and urged the college to ensure individual rights are protected.

Laura Beltz, another program officer at FIRE, specifically identified the college’s policy on bias incidents, the campus posting policy‘s prohibition on anonymous postings, and a clause in the college’s statement affirming a commitment to diversity and inclusiveness that compels students to engage in “civil discourse, reasoned thought, sustained discussion and constructive participation without degrading, abusing or silencing others” as examples of policies that could restrict freedom of expression.

Beltz said that FIRE “would be pleased to work with the Gettysburg administration to revise all of its yellow light rated speech codes to better meet First Amendment standards.”

The yellow light refers to FIRE’s three-tier system of evaluating college speech codes modeled after a traffic light, in which Gettysburg rates in the middle “yellow” category.

Both Bloomquist and Dean of Students Julie Ramsey said that the college has no plans to work with FIRE in its revision of campus policies, a stance McKenna supports.

“The strength and power of the philosophy comes from the fact that it was crafted through an inclusive process that included all members of the Gettysburg College community,” he said. “To take the hard work of the Gettysburg College community and then outsource it while we are not yet finished feels wrong.”

Ramsey said that the Student Life Committee, which is composed of College Life administrators, faculty, and students, will undertake the review of policies beginning early this fall and that, while it is impossible to know exactly how long that process will take, she imagines it will be complete by the end of the fall semester.

In contrast to the process used to draft the statement of philosophy, however, the Student Life Committee will not seek votes of ratification from campus constituencies, Ramsey said, though she added, “The committee typically seeks the input of students on policy issues which affect them.”

Ramsey would not confirm that the policies mentioned by FIRE are among those for which revisions are under consideration, but suggested that the committee would decide for itself what to review.

“It is too soon for me to say which policies will be revised in light of the Philosophy statement; that really will be up to the committee to decide, but I expect that any policy that intersects with expression could be up for review,” she said.

Nick Arbaugh ’20, President of Student Senate and an incoming member of the Student Life Committee, said he plans to push for the policy revisions FIRE supports.

“I am in full support of an expansion of Gettysburg student’s freedom of speech rights just as FIRE has described,” he said. “I look forward to working closely with FIRE in the near future as the process of removing undue restrictions on the natural rights of students continues into the future.”

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Author: Benjamin Pontz

Benjamin Pontz '20 serves as editor-in-chief of The Gettysburgian. Previously, he served as a staff writer, event coverage coordinator, news editor, and managing news editor. During his tenure, he has written more than 130 articles, and he led the team that won first place in the 2017 Keystone Press Awards for ongoing news coverage of Robert Spencer's visit to Gettysburg College. Ben 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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