Charlotte Spears ’24 (She/ Her), Senior Staff Writer

On November 29, Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression, an initiative to protect all types of free speech, was released to the community through an email from President Carol Quillen. The initiative, formed of two faculty members, a trustee, two students, and an alumni, aims to ensure that the college’s principles of free speech are applied to all groups and are not generational or preferential.

“Davidson College’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate, discussion and deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the college community to be offensive or unwise,” the initiative’s statement reads, led by James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy Issac Bailey. 

In the middle of the fall semester, President Quillen asked Bailey to form a committee regarding free speech. Having worked on the ethics surrounding self-censorship and freedom of expression through his work as a journalist and professor, Bailey wanted to create a unique document to protect freedom of speech in the Davidson community. 

“On campus, in terms of the more conservative faculty, students and staff members, they feel under more pressure to not fully express themselves,” Bailey said. “When I was a student at Davidson, if you [were] liberal, black, a woman or queer, then it was you who was under more pressure to not fully express yourself or feel silenced. So, say in another five or ten years, it might be a different group of people who feel silenced. So, we tried to craft [this document] to be timeless, which is why we tried to emphasize all of these protections are for everyone and every group in the community.

The committee wanted to institute a timeless precedent to protect voices that may be unpopular at different times or eras. Varun Maheshwari ‘23 was a student representative for the committee and feels that hyperpolarization and political judgement in classrooms and colleges limit education. 

“I feel like the phrase ‘agree to disagree respectfully’ has disappeared from conversations on campus,” Maheshwari said. “This statement is trying to bring some of that fervor back for free speech. And inclusive means inclusive for everyone.”

Maheshwari believes that education is “supposed to be uncomfortable.” To him, voices in education should not be homogenous. 

“You are supposed to learn a lot from different points of views and you are supposed to empathize with other points of views.” Maheshwari said. “And those new perspectives may not be yours, so you can form a more holistic point of view.”

In President Quillen’s preface to the statement, she wrote that there must be an “ongoing commitment” from community members to build an environment where all individuals can participate, and the “shared desire to learn overcomes discomfort and fear.” 

The committee has plans to create an annual Free Speech Day, the first of which is scheduled to occur this spring, and other events to reiterate the commitment. 

Other colleges and universities have instituted their own commitments to the freedom of expression and more organizations were created to address this cornerstone of higher education. Princeton University released an initiative that promised to protect speech and ideas that “are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.” The University of Chicago released a similar statement that affirmed “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think” and colleges and universities must be expected to “provide the conditions within which… strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.” 

In the Davidson, Princeton and University of Chicago reports, hate speech was not a protected speech, but conflicting and controversial opinions were noted as necessary. 

“We are not trying to paint a pollyanna version of free speech,” Bailey said. “We want everyone to know that their voice matters and is absolutely necessary, and a part of that is having the courage to speak up and listen to voices that might seem offensive.”

Additionally, both Bailey and Maheshwari refuted the idea that protecting all types of speech is counterproductive to the college’s goal of inclusivity. 

“If you exclude certain groups from your campus, you cannot claim that your environment really is about free speech, because all of the speech is the same,” Bailey said. “We wanted to send a message that there is no reason why our diversity efforts should be at odds with our free speech principle and vice versa.”