We have a responsibility to uphold free expression and intellectual vibrance
On Oct. 19, 2018, I presented a resolution to the University of Richmond faculty senate, asking it to adopt a policy regarding freedom of expression on campus that would clearly define the rights and responsibilities of our community in regard to free expression.
After the meeting, a professor sent a listserv message to the UR faculty proclaiming that I was part of the conservative right proposing a “dangerous” resolution seeking to “undermine university efforts to challenge bigotry” and using “weaponized free speech” to “dismantle social justice initiatives.”
The professor continued with the claim that my goal is “about protecting conservatives via dismantling what little protection exists for marginalized groups on campus.” I was personally named, and every faculty member in this school will read this statement and likely every faculty member that will teach me here will have read this.
I am unable to respond within the faculty listserv, but I would like to take this opportunity to address the attacks on me and clarify what we are trying to achieve with this resolution. I say “we” because although I initiated this process, the resolution was ultimately reviewed, discussed and unanimously supported by the Richmond College Student Government Association. Westhampton College Government Association has also offered its support for broadening campus conversations related to free expression.
Our objective is to support the mission statement and educational goals of our university by clearly defining our values through formal policy. Who do we want to be? What is important to us? What do we accept and not accept? We must have something that articulates our values and guiding principles regarding freedom of expression.
After we define the statement to guide us, we can review our policies and work to update those that do not reflect our goals. However, first, we must decide where we stand and communicate to our community what we expect.
As a private institution, UR is not bound by the First Amendment. The university has the freedom to promote or suppress whatever it chooses. However, I think that a clearly defined free expression statement gives us an opportunity to support our educational mission and communicate what we value and expect.
Free expression does not mean exclusion. Our liberal arts education should teach us to be passionate and compassionate. To fulfill the University of Richmond’s mission for us to be “prepared for lives of purpose, thoughtful inquiry and responsible leadership in a diverse world,” we must be exposed to diverse viewpoints as we learn to listen, discuss, debate and even protest in a thoughtful and civil way.
We cannot become intellectually engaged by avoiding things that are difficult or controversial. There are not any educational goals that encourage us to cover our eyes and ears. As a society, we are losing the ability to listen, communicate and participate in a rational way. Increasingly, our options in society are hiding in an echo chamber, keeping quiet or viciously attacking one another in a partisan manner.
Our freedom of expression statement should reflect our educational purpose and values, our rights and responsibilities and expectations for how we encourage discussion and handle conflict. This is a good time for us to think about why we support or don’t support freedom of expression, and what it means to us.
Some think that such a statement would support offensive speech and limit dissent against it. This is the opposite of what the RCSGA intends. If we decide that we value free expression, then we have the responsibility to encourage it. If we are missing the voices of minority and marginalized groups on campus, then we are not holding true to our guiding principles of free discourse.
Likewise, if we don’t encourage debate and protest, we do not have free speech as it is properly understood. We can promote both free speech and inclusivity, but we have to define what that looks like and what we expect from our community.
I take issue with our resolution being called dangerous. What is truly dangerous is being exposed to only a narrow view of the world. What is dangerous is not having the experience, tools and skills to deal with situations that are uncomfortable or not having the capacity to speak up when we disagree.
We cannot learn if we are never exposed to controversy. Our education should be about exposure, opening our minds and learning to appropriately and successfully communicate our opinions. It is also about understanding how our words and actions might negatively impact others.
We should be encouraged to speak up if we disagree, but to do it in a way that is respectful and will not intimidate others from speaking up. This professor’s comments to the entire faculty paint me in a way that will surely impact how some teachers view me when I step into their classes. If they don’t know me, then they have only the view of the derogatory and inflammatory comments they have read.
This faculty member has made dramatic and inaccurate claims about me. I don’t have, nor want, a narrow, intolerant view of the world. There is no educational purpose for free expression if you don’t have inclusion – diversity, opposing views, open discussion, positive dialogue, peaceful protests and mutual respect.
Contact contributor Alec Greven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, written by RCSGA Senator Alec Greven, was originally published on the University of Richmond's Collegian where it was titled: "We have a responsibility to uphold free expression and intellectual vibrance."