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FOEIT holds forum after year-long discussions

Campus Council held an open discussion on the work of the taskforce and allowed a chance for students to provide feedback

Samuel Casey

News Editor

On Tuesday, April 16, Campus Council hosted the Freedom of Expression and Inquiry Taskforce (FOEIT) forum to serve as an opportunity for students to learn and give feedback. According to an email from Campus Council, “FOEIT was tasked with creating an official statement on freedom of expression and inquiry on campus.” The email included attachments to the FOEIT statement and the 16-page taskforce report.

The report starts by introducing the taskforce and providing a brief overview. FOEIT was created by President Sarah Bolton in the first semester of the 2017-18 academic year and was charged with promoting “more sustained, subtle and widespread campus consideration of the meaning, value and justification of freedom of expression and inquiry and of its status at The College of Wooster.” It was also charged with creating a statement that would be less like a policy document or code, but more of an articulation of the College’s understanding and commitment to the freedom of expression.

Before the creation of FOEIT, President Bolton, Dean of Students Scott Brown, Campus Council members Marina Dias Lucena Adams ’18 and Jordan Griffith ’19 and John Rudisill, associate professor of philosophy and chair of FOEIT, created a general work schedule that the taskforce could adhere to. Additionally, the taskforce would include administration, faculty, staff and students.

Creating a freedom of expression statement was necessary given the controversies that occurred throughout the country, such as the backlash surrounding right-wing speakers Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos being invited to speak at the University of California at Berkeley, and in Wooster itself. “The College of Wooster experienced its own freedom of expression upheaval when one of our own students posted offensive and deeply disturbing racist messages on social media that then spread virally throughout the campus community,” the report said.

FOIET acknowledged that the relationship between the freedom of expression and promoting equality is “complicated and messy” due to an overlap between the two, but there should be a separation to ensure that deliberately speaking or writing with the intent of harming an individual and group should not be tolerated. As enrollment of international students and students of color increases, this conversation has become more necessary.

The taskforce’s work has occurred in two stages. The first phase began in November 2017 and consisted of discussions of case studies, including free expression controversies and a book about the freedom of speech. The second phase that followed featured different forms of outreach, including discussions with focus groups and a formal survey that was sent to students electronically.

FOEIT asked questions to each of the six focus groups, which consisted of representatives from 21 student groups on campus. The taskforce found that students understand the complex relationship between freedom of expression and an equitable environment; they were aware that the level of comfort in speaking freely varies between individual and groups of students and the focus groups wished for communication in various campus setting to be more respectful and in good-faith.

The results of the survey completed by 628 students showed that there was not a free speech crisis at the College, but according to the report, “… there is ample evidence of the need to pursue concerted efforts to improve the climate and culture in ways that better promote inclusiveness and broaden the scope of the population that feels comfortable participating in the crucial, educative exchange of ideas and opinions.”

The results show that students who identify as either liberal or conservative agree or strongly agree that it is important to be exposed to ideas and opinions that are different from their own and 80 percent of students agree or strongly agree that they are comfortable sharing opinions in the classroom.

Several recommendations were made by FOEIT based on their findings from the focus groups and survey. They found that the College should not “call for civility” as a form of combatting injustices but find a level of resistance that is required to stop an injustice constructively.

FOEIT added that learning and growth are a part of dealing with freedom of expression incidents. The report states, “An institution such as The College of Wooster would hardly be needed if it were the case that all persons already knew all that is needed to know and acted justly all the time.”

FOEIT recommended that the College “should work to promote a shared understanding of which spaces and contexts are for, at least in part and sometimes, the contestation of one another’s ideas and which spaces and contexts can reliably be safe for various identity and affinity groups.”

The taskforce emphasized that the one-fourth of the student population is new to the College every year, so there should be an ongoing focus on free speech and its relation to inclusion and equity.

The final approach that FOEIT took was the forum hosted by Campus Council. The panel conisted of Rudisill, Griffith and Susan Lehman, professor of physics and was moderated by Campus Council Chair Annabelle Hopkins ’19.

“Out of the taskforce, including the focus groups, we determined that we would produce a statement,” Rudisill said. “It would be worded in first person plural … to reflect the entire campus community.”

Hopkins made it clear that this statement is different from a policy that is in the Scot’s Key.

“This is not a policy or something that will dictate your life,” Hopkins said.

Griffith added that no students could be prosecuted by the Director of Student’s Rights and Responsibilities via this statement.

Rudisill stated that the forum was meant as the last opportunity to receive feedback from students before the statement goes through a ratification process.

One student felt that some of the language was vague, including the phrase “speech does things.”

The panel responded that they did not want to be so specific that they only included certain phrases or direct attacks because it would create a slippery slope with many loopholes.

Rudisill and Griffith explained that even if there are no physical threats, certain speech can still make students uncomfortable inside and outside of the classroom. They said that speech is nuanced and means different things in different contexts, which is their reasoning behind the vagueness in the statement.

Students also felt that even though this is not a policy now, it could lead to future policies that inhibit free speech.

Hopkins and Griffith made it clear that the absence of any kind of a statement would more likely lead to policies that infringe on this right because there is nothing for a possible future policy to rely one.

“In addition to these [freedom of expression] values, there are other things that we recommend … to promote a better community regarding things that divide us,” Rudisill sad. “I think that Wooster, far from perfect, fairs better that what happens at other college campuses.”

(Photo by Samuel Casey)

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