Freedom of Expression Task Force Presents New Policies

The Freedom of Expression Task Force stood before SGA on April 26th to present their tentative policies and direction. The task force has met throughout this academic year, initially with the goal of establishing a philosophical statement about the College’s policy concerning freedom of expression. Their work builds on a multi-year process that has involved refining current policy language and developing a new framework for students, faculty and staff to adhere to. The task force is currently in phase one of its mission and hopes to publish its work in the Student Handbook for easy reference.

The task force is chaired by Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John McKnight and Senior Associate Dean of Student Life Sarah Cardwell. Its members are History Professor Eileen Kane, Slavic Studies Professor Petko Ivanov, Morgan Fowle ‘19, Mariel Ozoria ‘20 and Teddy Parsons ‘18. The task force presented an update on its progress and asked for any feedback from SGA. Members will continue their work next year and plan to hold several round tables to open the conversation up to the campus community.

One of the major issues with which the task force dealt was the Honor Code. The Honor Code presents a certain framework for students while a separate framework exists for faculty and staff. This causes a problem when it comes to freedom of expression on campus, because such freedom affects both populations similarly, and both should be held to equal standards. The task force is looking to find a balance between freedom of expression, full participation and the essential operations of the College. It is not trying to ban protesting on campus, for example, but rather to establish guidelines for protests. The task force wants to put into place certain procedures that would come into play if students were to hold a protest.

While this may sound great in theory, it will likely prove difficult to execute successfully. At the open forum, students brought up concerns over the nature of protesting, specifically the unlikelihood of a student referring to the handbook to guide their method of protest, and the potential difficulty of working with the administration and Campus Safety to facilitate protesting. As it is, students expressed that correspondence with Campus Safety and other staff has not been efficient, so the idea of involving the administration or Campus Safety in a spontaneous movement seemed like a stretch.

A change that sparked further concern was the addition of the occupation of private offices, work areas, to the current guideline prohibiting certain disruptions on campus. This language alarmed several students who recalled the Occupy Fanning, a movement that occurred last spring when students sat in Fanning to protest the College’s approach to bias incidents, multicultural academic programming and transparency, among other grievances.

In light of these concerns, McKnight and Cardwell reassured students that should they want to occupy the halls of academic buildings, they would be free to do so.

Another important development on which the task force has been working concerns procedures for posting and removing posters. As Conn has previously had instances involving posters with controversial content — including one of Occupy Fanning’s inciting incidents — there is clearly a need for a policy regarding posted content. Under the new policy, anything posted must have the contact information (a valid Conn email or organization name), otherwise the poster will be taken down. Such a policy presents an interesting approach to freedom of expression, for controversial content will not be taken down if there is contact information on the poster. Rather, if the content violates policies of the Student Handbook, a bias incident may be filed so the person responsible for the content may be held accountable. The policy provides the space for statements to be made but also for conversation about such statements to be had.

The task force expresses wishes to maintain transparency throughout its process and invited the community to give their input. The task force’s work takes place in the context of increased freedom of expression issues on college campuses, making it timely and appropriate. The changes that will take place are still a ways off in the future, nevertheless, students, faculty and staff should be aware that conversations concerning freedom of expression are being had on campus, and policies will eventually be put into place.