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Yelling FIRE: The Need to Move Towards More Open Political Discourse On Campus

For anyone concerned about the state of free speech on Haverford’s campus, look no further than a non-profit organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), formed by a group of college students dedicated to holding institutions of higher education accountable for rules or codes that potentially restrict the voicing of differing and dissenting opinions. FIRE ranks many colleges and universities in the country on a three-tier scale: red, meaning the institution “has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” yellow, meaning the institution has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application,” and green, meaning the institution’s “policies nominally protect free speech.” It should come as no surprise that FIRE has given Haverford a ranking of “yellow.”

It should be of even less surprise that FIRE cites the Honor Code as the main document that, due to its ambiguous language, could have this effect of encouraging “arbitrary application.” These guidelines have been embodied in the students, creating a subculture that encourages the student body to reject the opinions of, quite frankly, those leaning towards the right of the political spectrum. The Code, specifically the section detailing what counts as “acts of discrimination,” has been taken to mean that, if one becomes offended by another’s actions or words, then they are immediately, infallibly correct, an assumption of moral high ground that is contradictory to the ideology of the Code itself. In many ways, the guidelines have left their text and pervaded the social and discursive atmosphere of Haverford.

One need not look further than Haverford’s recent history to see the impact these restrictions have had. In 2014, Haverford made headlines for the protests of some students who asked for the withdrawal of Robert Birgeneau, the former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor who was set to be the commencement speaker. The protesters submitted a list of requests that, according to replacement speaker William G. Brown, were meant to have Chancellor Birgeneau come “tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”

This striking statement is appropriate, considering the climate Haverford has perpetuated. This climate can be seen in a survey conducted by The Clerk last year. The long-term project observed a 20% response rate, which could be “skewed due to a small dataset of conservative respondents.” This may be explained by feelings of self-reservation and repression of active and vocal right-wing thought. Indeed, 94% of respondents agreed that conservatives are stigmatized; however, “no student who identified as a mainstream liberal reported feeling uncomfortable expressing their views.” There is an obvious disparity occurring, and it clearly violates an aspect of the Honor Code: that everyone’s opinion should be respected, heard, and valued or taken into account. This ideal has, in this point in our history as an institution, failed some that it should be most vehemently applied to. For one Republican on campus, and reflected in the responses of others, the “safe space [of conservatives] has been violated. At times, I feel like I cannot express who I am without being shunned or mocked…If change does not occur, not only will students like myself feel alienated and dejected, but also not feel like a part of this community.”

Responses like these, whether or not one agrees with the person’s opinion, should cause us to reflect on the very nature of the environment we sustain. Can Haverford be inclusive? If we use broad, sweeping interpretations of what is considered offensive, then there is much more speech included under the respect clause of the Honor Code, which states that:

“acts of discrimination and harassment, including, but not limited to, acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, discrimination based on religion or political ideology, and discrimination based on national origin or English capability are devoid of respect”

If we classify some forms of expression and speech that do not align with our political views as a violation of the Honor Code, do we not take away from the integrity of the individual expressing said opinion? Further, we are violating the Honor Code ourselves when we participate in such repressive action. The Honor Code makes a concerted effort to include political ideology under the things that are protected under the Code, a fact that all Haverford students should attempt to recognize. John Stuart Mill, in his essay “On Liberty,” states that “our mere social intolerance, kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.” Of course, we do not kill anyone, nor do we force people out of Haverford because of their opinions, but there is a very real sense in which we do force people to hide their political viewpoints. One student witnessed just such a repression in a class last year. “My professor compared Trump to the buffoon character in the play we were reading,” she said, noting that the professor had brought it up as a joke, not the students. “Everyone else nodded/laughed,” she continued, “but one guy in my class I know is conservative just looked so uncomfortable, even though I know he’s not a Trump supporter. Prof. didn’t notice and class moved on quickly, but little stuff like this happens.” This anecdote should remind us that the onus of responsibility for protection of speech and ideas lies also with our professors. What she saw violates both the premise of free speech and, more importantly, the integrity of the individual. It is also what Mill would call a dangerous “assumption of infallibility.” No opinion is infallible, nor more right or wrong than another. Each opinion should be given the respect and time it is due, which, in the current Haverford setting, it does not receive.

As the political scene and atmosphere surrounding free speech in our larger context becomes increasingly divisive, Haverford is met with the conundrum of liberalism: how to be inclusive to all viewpoints without the marginalization of one or more opinions. The solution seems, at least from my centrist perspective, is to simply learn how to have a productive discourse with people whose values are extremely different than ours, without falling into the trap of anger and hostility, as those teach us nothing and are contrary to our founding values. Kim Benston, president of Haverford, noted the same thing in an interview, saying, “We live an almost contradictory experience at Haverford. We want to have a safe community–and what we mean by that is not just that we feel unthreatened, but that that lack of threat opens up to us that we can share the most complicated thoughts with each other.”

I am by no means asking Haverford to bring Donald Trump in as a commencement speaker; I am asking that we have a productive and diverse conversation about what is wrong with his behavior. In order to move away from an atmosphere of “yellow” speech codes into the area of free and fruitful discourse, that conversation must include oppositional viewpoints, including Republicans.

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  1. Miriam Hwang-Carlos November 4, 2016

    Heads up, the section of the honor code you’re citing here was added in Spring 2015, while the Birgeneau situation happened in 2014, so it’s impossible for that situation to be the “impact of these restrictions”

    • hcpa November 6, 2016

      Just want to clarify: the campaign to disinvite Birgeneau was not about restricting his right to free speech because of a simple difference of political opinion. It was about stopping Haverford, an institution with (presumed) values rooted in Quakerism, not conferring an honor (degree of letters) upon someone who authorized the use of violent force (batons) against non-violent protesters. Maybe that’s just a selective reading of the situation but I think the distinction between an invited speaker vs an honorary degree recipient is important.
      Letter to Birgeneau the author referred to:
      Also a great essay by an alum on Bowen’s patronizing commencement address, for anyone else who wants to read more about this incident:

      • Mike Toreno November 11, 2016

        Exactly. As it happens, I’ve never seen an honest, principled argument for modern American-style conservatism, and this certainly isn’t one. It’s either derp, or dishonest, or both – the author either deliberately uses, or fails to recognize that he is repeating, a clumsy sleight of hand, one that presents conservatives as oppressed victims because others might be permitted to criticize their speech. The shrinking violet whose professor disparaged Trump was perfectly free to speak up, and then defend his viewpoint.

        Attempts to cast Birgeneau as a victim dishonestly portray the case as a free speech issue. Giving Birgeneau the bum’s rush didn’t raise any kind of free speech issue. The College was presuming to speak on behalf of the class of 2014 – to state in their name that Birgeneau was fit to be included among their number. The class of 2014 wasn’t wearing it. Birgeneau is a man responsible for actions like this:

         “Three times throughout the day, UC police officers attempted to force us to move by striking many of us repeatedly in the chest and stomach with batons, and by pulling others down to the ground by their hair,” wrote Armstrong. “Some of my friends and classmates were arrested that day; some had their ribs broken, or suffered other injuries. We all continue to carry psychic, and in some cases physical, scars from November 9, 2011.”

        Birgeneau referred to the letter from the 2014 class members as “a violent verbal attack” and took a powder. Good riddance to bad rubbish, if you ask me.

        As the author of the piece linked above observes:

        “In any case, the reason that there has been no open conversation about the events of November 9, 2011, is not that fifty students and faculty at Haverford College were too aggressive in their letter-writing. Dialogue requires a willing partner, which Birgeneau has given no indication of being—not at Haverford, not anywhere else.”

        As for the supposed fear of conservatives to speak their minds, that’s their choice. Nobody is stopping them from speaking, but nobody has to listen. If conservatives believe that voicing their beliefs will cause people to draw uncomplimentary inferences about them, they can reexamine their beliefs, or defend them in a coherent way in order to gain adherents.

        Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism.

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