Between Free Speech and an Inclusive Campus

After students hung up a series of controversial posters, Gettysburg College strengthened its free speech policies and created a bias-response team.

June 14, 2016

When she returned to Gettysburg College after winter break, Alissa Lopez helped design a series of anti-abortion posters.

“Let’s talk about race,” one of the posters reads. “Abortion is the number one killer of black lives in the United States.” It features a photo of a baby girl, and it ends with the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

Lopez was the vice president of Gettysburg’s Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth activism group. Race was a dominant theme on campus, so the group decided to incorporate it into its campaign.

“Everyone was talking about race,” Lopez said. “We figured, let’s go with this narrative.”

The message was startling, but so was she. A conservative at a small liberal arts college, she felt that everyone was united against her.

It was a delicate situation, tailor-made for outrage from both sides of the political spectrum. The administration was left with two choices: challenging the students would invite free speech concerns, while supporting them would leave some students, who say the posters are racist, feeling targeted and ignored.

So Gettysburg went with a middle ground of sorts.

In April, the college created a new speech policy, which stresses the college’s commitment to free expression -- even when forms of expression are seen as offensive. “Any effort by members of the college community to limit openness in this academic community is a matter of serious concern and militates against the freedom of expression and the discovery of truth,” the policy reads.

The changes were meant “to really challenge our students to be OK with being uncomfortable,” said Ron Wiafe, director of student rights and responsibilities. “We emphasize freedom of speech and freedom of expression, even through contentious situations.”

At the same time, the university announced a new bias-response team. In an email to students, Chief Diversity Officer Jeanne Arnold announced the new initiative and explicitly condemned the students’ tactics.

“Posters that were hung last week in numerous locations on campus singled out African-American women in an effort to promote pro-life positions,” she wrote. “These posters also made misleading use of ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

The bias-response team wasn’t created in response to the posters -- but it also wasn’t entirely unrelated.

“It was on the to-do list since last fall,” Arnold said. “But after the poster issues, I just kind of moved it up on my list of things we were going to do anyway.”

Can a college expand free speech protections while also condemning bias? Across the country, free-speech advocates have said no -- time and time again -- but Gettysburg officials say they can. The two changes, they argue, will be complementary, not contradictory.

“It’s not a part of our charge to prevent free speech,” Arnold said. “The best response to speech is more speech. Even though free speech is protected, it doesn’t always fit with the values of a community.”

And that, she said, is where the bias-response team comes in: it will organize educational opportunities -- like town hall meetings or speakers -- that students can choose to attend.

Still, it’s troubling whenever a college creates new policy after such an event, said Azhar Majeed, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“The concern is that, in response to a specific controversy or incident, the university might overreact,” he said. “The better approach is to take your time and make sure that the policy you’re enacting is protecting students’ free-speech rights.”

Overall, Majeed thinks Gettysburg reacted well -- and if the bias-response team exists only for fostering dialogue, it won’t pose a problem. But Gettysburg already has a policy in place on bias-related behavior that FIRE considers a red-light policy -- the group’s lowest rating -- and Majeed worries that subsequent policies will take on a similar tone.

While Gettysburg is still working out the details, Arnold said that the bias-response team will focus on education rather than punishment. It will review reports of bias incidents on campus -- to watch for patterns, and to tailor educational programs accordingly -- but it will never adjudicate disputes.

Lopez is skeptical. She feels that Arnold’s email, which also condemned the posters, targeted her and her group based on its political beliefs.

“We weren’t doing anything that was actually vicious,” Lopez said. “It was, ‘hey, we think these lives have value.’”

The group for got the idea for the posters from students at Purdue University, who designed a poster that read, “Hands up, don’t abort.” They say the Black Lives Matter statement fits with their cause.

After the posters went up, the students met with administrators. While Lopez said they were asked to take the posters down, Wiafe said that they were asked only to “adjust their communication.”

“We saw a lot of contentious conversations from students,” Wiafe said. “But the administration never took the posters down.”

In situations like this, Wiafe said the administration’s role is twofold: to support students who want to speak up, and to challenge students to be OK with discomfort when they hear opinions they disagree with.

“Some of our students did not understand why the college was allowing the posters to be up,” Wiafe said.

The posters’ critics argued that the group misrepresented the Black Lives Matter movement, using it instead to further the oppression of black women. A few days later, some of them held their own protest.

But according to Lopez, one of the students at the protest said, “if the school doesn’t hold you accountable, we will,” which Lopez took as a threat. She reported the incident, but it worried her, and she skipped classes the following day.

At the same time, she is very happy with the new free-speech policy. “You can’t silence us, and shove us into a corner, and tell us to be quiet,” she said. “I thought it was a great effort by the school.”



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