By Kashif Masood
On campuses nationwide, incidents have ignited a debate about free speech and inclusion on campus. Calls for discipline have raised concerns about the state of free speech on campus.
In an email response to a speech code request, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) noted: “Although Hood is a private college and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it makes institutional promises that bind it morally and perhaps even contractually to protect free speech. Students reading these promises would reasonably expect that Hood will provide them with free speech rights commensurate with those of their peers at public institutions.”
Policy 55 states that “Hood College is committed to the principles of free inquiry and free expression. The College’s policy against discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct, and retaliation is not intended to stifle this freedom, nor will it be permitted to do so.”
But FIRE is not satisfied. They criticize the Bullying and Harassment clauses for “mak[ing] punishable any mere ‘attempt to demean … or abuse another individual,’ which includes a great deal of speech that is protected under First Amendment standards…so a person’s subjective feeling about what expression is demeaning or abusive is enough to meet the standard.” FIRE also criticized the Bullying, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct clauses for “mak[ing] punishable any conduct which creates ‘a hostile or offensive environment’” without using an objective, reasonable person standard. FIRE recommended that these clauses be revised
to match the Davis vs. Monroe (a May 24, 1999 Supreme Court case) harassment definition (“so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”)
When Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion, Travis Eichelberger, was asked if such a revision would affect enforcement of Policy 55, he confidently expressed that “Policy 55 was revised in 2015, so the Board [of Trustees] must have been aware of that court case.” When asked what would be considered offensive, he said that they “focus on the perception of not feeling safe, targeted, not being supported. Also we look at intent.” When asked about Hood’s commitment to free speech, Eichelberger stressed that Hood is interested in dialogue, not censorship. He mentioned how several years ago, Newt Gingrich was allowed to speak on campus. Those protesting his appearance were allowed to do so peacefully.
Director of Residence Life and Student Conduct, Matt Troutman, shares Eichelberger’s sentiment on dialogue instead of censorship. In an email response to an interview request, Troutman said, “ It is vital that Resident Assistants are affirming and welcoming to all students… I encourage RAs to bring their students to campus activities including events which promote diversity in thought, ethnicity, gender, etc…There are opportunities for RAs [Resident Assistants]] to notice when students are saying words or inappropriate jokes, or similar types of things which others would find offensive; these are teachable moments for students to learn when the RA or their supervisor or another campus resource discusses the matter with them. Incidents which are larger in nature are sometimes handled in the judicial system (by my office).”