Quillen and the College Should Promote Free Speech

Lizzie Kane ’22

Being Jewish, I felt endangered by the tweets the Davidson student, who is no longer on campus, allegedly posted this past fall. They were homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic. The student posted pictures of the Ku Klux Klan and said she wished she could go back to their era. Davidson College should not tolerate attitudes such as these. 

One of the tweets reads as follows: “I actually don’t give a shit about Jews getting shot up except insofar as it’s going to make it a lot harder for a lot of white people to just exist.” I don’t believe words are violence, but these words are threatening and could incite violence. 

I have heard talk of a group of students and professors, as well as in Student Government, looking to define “hate speech” in order to add a related category to the Honor Code. However, “hate speech” is not a legal term, making it extremely hard to define. Therefore, it cannot be excluded from First Amendment protection, and I don’t think it can be included in the Honor Code. 

While I believe the phrase is too ambiguous to interpret, Davidson could still allow the Honor Council and SGA to handle “hate speech”-like cases such as the recent Twitter occurrence. The Honor Council is an elected group that already handles serious proceedings regarding lying, cheating, and stealing, and SGA is an elected group whose job it is to act as a liaison between the administration and student body. If we believe the Council and SGA are made up of people with a diverse set of opinions and ideologies, then it makes sense for them to be able to evaluate seemingly hateful speech as well. It is possible that such speech could already violate the Code of Responsibility or other sections of the Student Handbook.

While I believe that Davidson should look for a student-led solution to handling incidents like the one this past fall, the college also needs to do a better job of advocating for free speech and promoting diversity of thought. One hindrance to a campus trying to fuel diversity of thought is that our current political climate and media environment create and exacerbate our present atmosphere of segregated ideas by adhering to natural partisan bias. Political scientists call this segregation of ideas “affective partisan polarization.” Davidson should want its students to lead the way in slowing down or reversing this process of polarization.

Likewise, there are countless news sources, making it easy for people to confine themselves to one brand. People also avoid face-to-face conflict, further decreasing exposure to cross-cutting views. Boiled down, our environments are becoming too homogenous. 

College campuses are a part of this homogeneity, as they are thought of as more liberal-leaning nowadays. Thus, it is important for Davidson to be an inclusive environment: one that promotes a variety of beliefs. 

Davidson should actively be working to prepare its students for compromise and disagreement, developing clear policies and programs dedicated to free speech to set a certain precedent. The University of Chicago has already made a statement: “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” 

Also, The University of Chicago has a page on its website dedicated to “Free Expression,” listing various transcriptions of its current president’s statements on this matter and related policies and events. 

If we want our politics to be better, we must start by educating young people, like myself, correctly and teaching them the importance of listening to all; with the building of empathy comes progress. By creating an explicit policy on free speech and starting educational programs about the power of freedom of expression and how to have effective dialogue on campus—which could occur during first-years’ orientation—the hope would be that Davidson’s campus would produce divergent opinions. 

While I value diversity of thought and wish for Davidson to more clearly encourage a campus full of students burgeoning with varying opinions, I recognize that free speech does have limitations by law. Per Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), people cannot advocate for the use of force when it’s “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”

Additionally, Davidson’s Code of Responsibility defines harassment as “unwanted behavior that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a person’s or a group of persons’ educational, work, social or living activities.” I think that the rhetoric used in the Davidson student’s alleged Twitter account violates the Code and maybe even the law.

Although the law and the Code of Responsibility can restrict certain language, Davidson, when articulating its desire for free speech, should still recognize that speech, in itself, is not a form of violence. Words can hurt, they can make people feel unsafe—as the tweets made me feel—but they do not produce the same pain as a gunshot or stabbing would. 

If Davidson doesn’t issue an official statement on free speech and start educational programs in the hopes of producing a greater understanding of civil discourse, they are fostering an environment where students’ “emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings,” according to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind.” 

President Carol Quillen stated in her Forbes op-ed, “Buckle Up, It’s College,” “Learning is not for the timid… Our students need to be able to risk the freedom that comes from pursuing the desire to know, even when that pursuit gets difficult.” While I agree with her, I also think that as President of the College, she needs to lead the way in taking some direct action on campus, following through on her words.

Davidson would be doing us a disservice if they let students’ feelings of discomfort drive the selection of speakers who come to campus and which discussions are “appropriate.” It is acceptable not to support a speaker brought to campus if you disagree with his or her philosophies; it is acceptable to not participate in a discussion if you feel as though it is not conducive to the type of learning environment you desire. But students, faculty, and staff should let those speakers come and those discussions be had for the students who feel as though they will glean something from them. 

Additionally, if the college does write a document and initiate programming encouraging productive debate and discussion in and out of the classroom, willing students to listen to all, it will help ensure that the campus is a bastion for free speech; it will leave no room for stubborn, ignorant people to plug their ears and turn their backs. 

According to Dean of Students Byron McCrae, Davidson has applied for the “Principal Leadership in a Polarized World” grant funded through the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. If received, the grant money would go towards creating free speech programming.

Having a campus that encourages free speech won’t get rid of the racists, homophobes, sexists, and all the other “ists” and “phobes” one can think of. But it will call for liberals, conservatives, and anyone in between to come together and have productive conversations, allowing for students to hear views different from their own. 

Lizzie Kane ‘22, Perspectives co-editor,  is undeclared from Baltimore, Maryland. Contact her at likane@davidson.edu.

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