We attend a university that is dedicated to open expression, a value that is at the core of academic pursuit. It is easy to forget that without continuous maintenance, freedom of speech is jeopardized by popular demands for conformity. Recent events at Columbia University (N.Y.) have brought to attention the inadequacies of Emory’s free speech policies.
Student group Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR) recently invited Tommy Robinson, founder of the European Defence League and far-right activist, to speak via Skype. Robinson has said that Islam is “violent” and “fascist.” During his Oct. 10 speech, more than 30 protesters marched onto the stage, chanting and disrupting the talk.
Shortly after, Columbia placed at least 19 students under investigation for violating Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct in regard to freedom of expression. But after students and faculty members denounced the investigations, the investigations were dropped. Columbia’s Executive Vice President for University Life and Rules Administrator Suzanne Goldberg decided to “informally resolve the Rules of University Conduct complaint.”
In order to adequately protect open expression, viewpoint neutrality is necessary in every aspect of a university’s involvement with speech, including the punishments doled out for disrupting speech. Goldberg did not explain her decision, leaving the impression that the investigation was dropped because the protesters’ side was popular and CUCR’s was not.
Emory should preemptively learn from Columbia’s mistakes. Embedded in Emory’s Respect for Open Expression Policy is a provision enabling the University to cancel planned speeches if there is a credible threat that violence or dangerous overcrowding will result. In order to prevent policy from encouraging a heckler’s veto, Emory ought to amend its policy to clarify that any student or faculty member who uses or threatens to use force in an attempt to silence speech risks suspension or expulsion. In addition, Emory should let it be known that people outside the purview of the University who engage in such actions will be prosecuted by the law. Emory should also define procedures and punishments to be followed in the case of nonviolent but disruptive silencing of speech. Finally, Emory must explicitly commit to enforce all of its open expression policies in a viewpoint-neutral manner.
Last semester, State Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) visited campus at the invitation of student group Emory College Republicans (ECR). Open expression observers were stationed inside the room and Emory Police Department (EPD) officers were present outside to prevent violence. The audience included protesters who were carrying signs, occasionally heckling and submitting critical questions. The talk began with questions screened by ECR, but unfortunately Ehrhart left without a vigorous debate challenging his policies despite the overwhelming opposition in the room.
Speakers who are invited by student groups have a right to appear on campus and to be heard. But there is no right to have one’s speech go unchallenged. When questions are asked at an event, they should be screened in a viewpoint-neutral way. Unfortunately, it is logistically impossible to ensure every student group screens their questions in a viewpoint-neutral way. A violation of this proposed policy could only be reported in a retroactive complaint system. Our hope is that a threat of punishment will deter student groups from silencing challenging questions.
Columbia’s recent problems with their free speech policies require a review of our own at Emory. Not only that, free speech is being challenged from the White House and from state legislatures throughout the country. Some are attempting to silence universities. Now, more than ever, the Emory community should take a look at our open expression policies and make the necessary changes, so we can continue to speak freely while being challenged.
The above Editorial represents the consensus opinion of the Wheel’s editorial board.
The editorial board is composed of Nora Elmubarak, Jennifer Katz, Andrew Kliewer, Madeline Lutwyche, Isabeth Mendoza, Boris Niyonzima, Shreya Pabbaraju, Isaiah Sirois and Mathew Sperling.