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Missed opportunities: A tale of free speech at Brandeis

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Front Page

In theory, free speech is a simple concept. The First Amendment covers it in ten words: Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.

If only it were that easy.

Over the last five years, Brandeis has been host to a series of incidents and controversies, and while free speech was not the driving force behind any, it is a common thread connecting them all.

These cases occurred in different venues across the university, from the closing of the “Voices of Palestine” exhibit to allegations of racist remarks in Prof. Donald Hindley’s classroom; from the debate over whether to allow a presentation by President Jimmy Carter to an offensive joke printed in Gravity magazine; and from the Justice’s Dusty Baker incident to The Hoot’s decision to print a poem entitled “I Hate You Thugs.”

In all of these instances, students, administrators and faculty questioned who has the right to say what, and when and where they have the right to say it.

Of course, any series of incidents raises the question: Why does this keep cropping up? Is it a trend particular to Brandeis or to the university setting in general? Or is it that the current Brandeis generation simply refuses to learn from its recent past?

In a series of interviews with students, faculty, and members of the administration, a variety of opinions arose as to the cause of this issue’s persistence.

And while they touched on a range of different topics, many of the discussions pivoted around one concept and came back to one conclusion: Brandeis does not spend enough time talking about speech, and thus does not exploit the educational moments inherent in the controversies that have occurred. According to the community, Brandeis’ relationship with free speech is one of missed opportunities.

Universities: the last bastion of free speech?

“I think the nature of the place, the openness of campus, invites the controversy that we get,” said Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer. “If you spend time here, just by mathematical percentages, with this and that happening every day…all points of view are represented every single day.”

With professors, guest speakers, religious figures and hundreds of active student organizations, there are a lot of opinions present in everyday discourse on campus, which inherently brings up a variety of issues. This is not something unique to Brandeis, but is happening at universities across the country.

“All universities face challenges in living with diversity,” said Prof. Govind Sreenivasan (HIST). “When people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives are brought to live, learn, and even grow up together, there are going to be challenges, and discussing challenges is the lifeblood of a university.”

So, if it a debate about rights is going to happen anywhere, a university makes sense as a setting. Also, as Prof. Gordie Fellman (SOC) noted, free speech is a hot topic not just at Brandeis, but throughout the entire country.

“Freedom of speech is under attack in general because of the government,” said Fellman. “It is in the whole country, with the ascendancy of the right wing. The Constitution is a nuisance in a lot of ways to people who want economic elites to run the country.”

Fellman added that Brandeis is not divorced from the issues that are controversial in society, and since speech has been under attack in the nation at large, the Brandeis community has had to deal with it too.

“Brandeis reflects currents in society,” he said. “Every three or four years there is some major silly incident.”

But how far are members of the community allowed to go? What speech rights are protected or denied within the confines of campus? Is there a guide as to which speech is appropriate on campus?

So what ARE the speech rights here?

Technically, there is no document for Brandeis students that specifically outlines speech rights. The closest existing framework is Rights & Responsibilities, which aims to establish “community standards of behavior.”

“Rights and Responsibilities deals with student responsibilities on the Brandeis campus,” explained Director of Student Development and Conduct Erika Lammare, “so we do not have a speech code, per se, because it’s known that there are things such as free speech here.” Sawyer agreed, “I would say students here have freedom of speech. It’s granted by the Constitution.”

For some members of the Student Union, though, the matter is not so clear.

“There’s a distinction between our First Amendment rights in the U.S. Constitution and the rights afforded us by Rights & Responsibilities,” said Director of Union Affairs Jason Gray ’10. “It’s clear a distinction is there. If it’s assumed, why isn’t it guaranteed?”

Section 7 of Rights & Responsibilities is the only section that deals with speech; it specifically covers what constitutes threats and harassment.

Under section 7.6, which essentially covers discrimination, examples of speech that might violate Rights & Responsibilities include: “jokes, comments, or innuendos that make fun of, denigrate, or are based on an individual’s or group’s protected class status,” “epithets or slurs,” and “objects, posters, cartoons or pictures that make fun of, denigrate, or are based” on protected class status.

Protected class status means a number of things, including race, color, ancestry, and sexual orientation, among others. According to Lamarre, a student’s speech ultimately becomes a threat, and thus violates Rights & Responsibilities “if it feels of such a nature that the student [targeted] can’t function the way another student can function.”

“People can be mean to each other,” she said. “When it crosses the line is where it becomes a threat.” If a student claims that Rights & Responsibilities has been violated, it is Lamarre’s office that decides the complaint’s merit, and can proceed with what it deems appropriate punitive measures.

Because Brandeis is a private institution, U.S. Constitutional rights do not automatically apply to its community members. Lamarre explained, “a lot of times when students talk about rights, they talk about the Bill of Rights. [But] the relationship between students and Brandeis is contractual, not governmental.”

As Lamarre pointed out, the Second Amendment right to bear arms does not apply on campus. Sawyer concurred, noting that, “part of the Constitution is time, place, and manner.”

For Student Union Advocate Brian Paternostro ‘08, though, the lack of specifically guaranteed speech rights is troublesome. “If anyone from the general staff, in theory, wanted to shut something down, they could,” he said.

“I’d like to hope the administration would always err on the side of the right to free speech, but I think discussion of rights is a good thing,” added Gray. “I trust Student Life and I think it’s important that students work with the administration to ensure that students feel comfortable.”

So while there is no explicit guarantee of speech rights, neither is there an explicit denial. Based purely on the documents, there is no simple way to decide which speech is permissible, beyond the restrictions on threatening or harassing another student. Gray summed up the issue very succinctly.

“It’s a question that came up in Gravity, and it’s a fair question to ask,” he said. “Who gets to decide which speech is free speech?”

When it comes to threats and harassment, Lamarre and the office of student conduct have the final word; other than that, no written guidelines exist.

Part two of this series will closely examine some of the recent controversies on campus, their implications for free speech in the community, and who, in each case, decided what speech was and was not permissible in the Brandeis community.