Editorial: In Support of the Freedom of Expression Philosophy

By The Gettysburgian Editorial Board

THE ISSUE: Last spring, members of the Gettysburg campus community expressed a range of viewpoints after the college allowed Robert Spencer, Director of Jihad Watch, to give a speech entitled “The Political Ramifications of Islamic Fundamentalism.” The college invited Dr. Todd Green, Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College, to give a speech entitled “Professional Islamophobia,” and students organized a solidarity rally with Muslim students held simultaneously with Spencer’s speech. After that event, President Janet Morgan Riggs said the college needed to develop an “affirmative statement” of institutional philosophy on freedom of expression, and, in September, she charged a committee to lead that process. Last week, the college held a town hall meeting to discuss the draft philosophy that the committee developed.



 It is therefore our responsibility to both celebrate and protect our diversity.

As Gettysburgians, we understand that a more diverse community is a stronger one and that learning from a variety of cultures, races, backgrounds, genders, and ideas is crucial for our development as a student body and a college.  It is therefore our responsibility to both celebrate and protect our diversity.

It is with this in mind that we strongly endorse the drafted Freedom of Expression Philosophy.

This philosophy encourages the exploration of our diversity by promoting an open dialogue of ideas across campus, while still protecting the basic rights of students and guaranteeing a functional learning environment.

Striking a balance between promoting a safe learning environment and allowing for maximum freedom of expression may be difficult; however, representing a complete spectrum of ideas and fostering an environment of mutual respect are not antithetical goals, even if some ideas and discussions may be deemed offensive by a portion of our community.

By learning to identify, counter, and refute arguments we may find racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, Anti-Semitic, or otherwise prejudicial, we ultimately develop a community of greater mutual understanding and deeper thinking in which clarity between us can lead to charity amongst us.

If prejudicial misconceptions are not aired, they can neither be addressed nor corrected. A culture of silence implicitly promotes prejudice by pretending that because it is not spoken, it does not exist. Banning expression of ideas does not make those ideas go away.

Admittedly, a policy of unfettered free speech may embolden some of our harshest voices, but when the shared values of our community encourage dissent rather than criminalize it, the richness of our dialogue and the diversity of our experiences will overpower occasional cacophonous smatterings of bigotry.

Ultimately, although it may be more comfortable to silence the prejudice among us, we are strongest when we instead drown it out with a chorus of contradiction.

Our freedom rings loudest when we refuse to silence those whose values differ from our own.

Our freedom rings loudest when we refuse to silence those whose values differ from our own.

Different from prejudice or bigotry, however, is slander and harassment. This draft rightly suggests that the college may seek to restrict speech that constitutes slander, threats, or harassment, or is directly incompatible with the functioning of the college. At times, there can be a fine line between what constitutes a deeply offensive opinion versus slander. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, slander is “the speaking of false and malicious words concerning another, whereby injury results to his reputation.” This philosophy challenges us to raise the level of debate far beyond ad hominem slander to an intelligent discussion and airing of ideas.

Justice Louis D. Brandeis, in his famous opinion in Whitney v. California (1927), succinctly encapsulates the essence of this debate by saying, “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.” By invoking these words in the drafted philosophy, Gettysburg College will commit itself to fostering an inclusive and robust dialogue on the pressing issues of today and of tomorrow.

This philosophy challenges us to raise the level of debate far beyond ad hominem slander to an intelligent discussion and airing of ideas.

In addition to the content of the philosophy, the college deserves accolade for the process it used in developing the statement. From the beginning, it was clear that this group of seven, which represented racial, gender, generational, and positional diversity, sought to engage the campus community in a discussion of this sensitive and often divisive issue. Using that feedback, they conscientiously drafted a statement that represented the consensus of the views they heard and the wisdom accrued from their diverse experiences. Furthermore, in assuring that the Gettysburg College Student Senate has the first opportunity to ratify (or oppose) the statement, the college has guaranteed students an indispensible voice in the process.

The workgroup — composed of chair Jennifer Bloomquist, Professors Ivanova Reyes and Hakim Williams, Associate Vice President of College Life Jeff Foster, Trustees Jim Banks and Jeff Oak, and Student Senate Policy Committee Chair Patrick McKenna — deserves commendation for their laudable work throughout this undoubtedly challenging and consuming process, and President Riggs deserves thanks for her vision and guidance. This was a triumph for transparency.

We urge the Student Senate, the faculty, and the Board of Trustees, to ratify this statement of institutional philosophy as soon as possible. Our campus community will be stronger for it.

This editorial reflects the collective opinion of The Gettysburgian’s editorial board: Jamie Welch (editor-in-chief), Joshua Wagner (opinions editor), Benjamin Pontz (managing news editor), Alex Romano (associate editor), Katherine Lentz (arts & entertainment editor), Gauri Mangala (co-features editor), Noelle Zimmerman (co-features editor), Claire Healey (co-sports editor), Elizabeth Hilfrank (co-sports editor), and Morgan Hubbard (lead copyeditor). The editor-in-chief bears final responsibility for all editorial content, and questions can be directed to editors@gettysburgian.com. Members of the campus community are invited to continue submitting feedback via the workgroup’s Google Form through February 15.

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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1 Comment

  1. Well said and well written! The College’s Statement on Freedom of Expression and the Editorial Board have both gotten this issue right. G’Burg already has a record to be proud of on these free speech issues and has managed free speech “controversies” much better than other schools (e.g. Middlebury and UC Berkeley). The dedication to free speech demonstrated by the College and The Gettysburgian will serve the G’Burg community well going forward. Proud to be a G’Burg alum and parent!

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