It’s My Right!…
St. Lawrence is not the only place where
arguments about free speech are heating up.
By Macreena A. Doyle
Record fines for broadcasters airing objectionable language, brawls
spilling over from playing fields to spectators in the stands, increases
in both the volume and vituperation exhibited on cable news stations
and talk radio – could the framers of the Constitution have envisioned
any of this when they voted to guarantee free speech?
Not surprisingly given the national environment, debate over free
speech and its corollary – academic freedom – has also
increased in recent years. Add to that the relatively new medium of
Internet Web sites and it's easy to see why these topics have America's
colleges and universities examining their policies.
The advent of the Internet is resulting in new exploration of established
rules. According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, the most requested
definition in its online service during the past year was the word "blog" (short
for "Web log"). From politicians to pundits, attorneys to
academicians and critics to just plain cranks, it seems that with the
Internet, everyone has a worldwide forum in which to espouse their
At Johns Hopkins University, an effort called the Civility Initiative
began in 1997, with a goal of assessing the significance of civility
and manners in society. According to those involved, it's important
to pay attention to any perceived decline in civility, because research
has shown a link between incivility and violence.
What has caused an increase in incivility? Theories abound, including
Civility Initiative Co-Founder P.M. Forni's; he has stated that an
educational emphasis in the past 30 to 40 years on self-expression
and the building of self-esteem has not been balanced by "an education
Whatever its causes, campuses are feeling the effects. For example:
- Efforts are under way to establish, through federal legislation,
what has been called an "Academic Bill of Rights." Based
upon data purporting to show that Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans
in faculty positions, and citing official statements and principles
of the American Association of University Professors, advocates of
the Academic Bill of Rights would require universities to maintain
political pluralism and diversity. This requirement is said to enforce
the principle that "no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy
should be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring
or tenure or termination process." For a Laurentian discussion
of this matter, see (forum article).
- In Colorado, higher education representatives went before the Legislature's
Joint Education Committee, claiming that efforts to enforce the Academic
Bill of Rights had led to "death threats" against professors
and had a harmful effect on free speech.
- A Web site run by students at the University of California at San
Diego regularly takes aim at everything from campus fashions and the
student newspaper to the chancellor's monthly housing allowance. Unable
to shut down the site through other means, the university's legal representatives
are exploring whether they have a basis for arguing trademark infringement.
- Statements made on a Web log by a faculty member at the University
including his opposition to hiring gay people as teachers, were ruled
to be offensive, but protected under the First Amendment. Similar controversies
have embroiled Northwestern University, Columbia University and the
University of Duluth, among others.
Like its colleagues, St. Lawrence University has also had recent experience
with these types of controversies. The “green wall” that
surrounded the Student Center while it was under construction in 2003
became a medium for a variety of forms of self-expression – and
was subsequently celebrated by some as such, while reviled by others.
And in March 2004, the campus became embroiled in intense debate surrounding
statements on the personal blog of a faculty member. Two issues surfaced:
the content of the statement and the fact that he linked his blog to
the University’s Web site. At the height of the fervor, President
Daniel F. Sullivan and Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs
Grant H. Cornwell Jr. ’79 issued a campus-wide statement affirming
that “the link…is within institutional policy, as an application
of free speech,” and stating in part that “Teaching and
learning require unfettered thought, inquiry, and expression. Our greatest
hope is that the controversy…will, in the spirit of freedom
of speech and inquiry to which we are so deeply committed, have produced
real teaching and learning.”
So, in the national debates about civility, free speech, First Amendment
rights and academic freedom, have the fundamental issues become obscured?
Perhaps not. A recent survey of the readers of Parents magazine
showed overwhelmingly that good manners are among the qualities that
parents most want to instill in their offspring.
As St. Lawrence’s coordinator of media relations, Macreena
Doyle gets to explain topics of campus culture to newspaper and TV
The Thelomathesian Society
Resolution in Support of Civility, Free Speech and Dialogue
Passed, November 9, 2004
While we urge professionalism and restraint in dialogue between groups particularly
on sensitive issues, we also stress that politeness should never preempt
upfront and decisive attacks on actions, literature, social structures or
opinions which are racist, classist, sexist, (or) homophobic, as well as
other forms of discrimination, as outlined in the student handbook. We, as
the Thelomathesian Society, recognize that there exist differences between
personal attacks on individuals and those on larger social structures or
ideas, and advocate tolerance towards individuals and the free expression
of opinions towards the latter. We also recognize that dealing with sensitive
issues such as these can often times be uncomfortable and some degree of
discomfort is necessary and useful in dealing with these injustices that
plague our society and which we as a student body are dedicated to addressing.
Whereas the recognition of free speech is both supported and encouraged by
the Thelomathesian Society, we affirm the rights of academic freedom and such
speech so long as opinions expressed do not include personal attacks and do
not constitute forms of discriminatory harassment as defined by, yet not limited
to, University regulations;
And whereas we do not support attempts to undermine free speech, or personal
attacks that have been made on individuals in our community;
And whereas the Thelomathesian Society encourages civility and dialogue without
said harmful actions;
Be It Resolved:
We, the Thelomathesian Society, expect all members of our campus community
hold themselves to such civility and dialogue, and offer to serve in any capacity
that will in turn encourage such civility and dialogue.
The Thelomathesian Society Executive Board
Peter S. Snedeker ’06, President
Alex R. Sheppard ’07, Vice President of University Relations
Adam W. Casler ’06, Vice President of Senate Affairs
Molly F. Ryan ’05, Secretary
Heather L. Thomas ’05, Student Delegate to the Board of Trustees
Saurabh Gupta ’05, SLUSAF Central Treasurer
“Is Tolerance Enough?”
Laurentian Leadership Weekend visitors were not the only ones talking
about civil discourse last fall (see page xx); those whose careers
play out on campus got into the act as well.
A “shop talk” (campus-speak for a seminar for the brainstorming
of views on pedagogy) at the Center for Teaching and Learning attracted
over three dozen faculty and staff to the topic “Is Tolerance
Enough? Civility and Disagreement in the Classroom and Beyond.” They
were presented with these questions: In an intellectual community,
how do we best deal with disagreement over fundamental issues, both
in the classroom and among colleagues? Are calls for increased “civility” just
another way of avoiding conflict by sweeping it under the rug of politeness
and “tolerance”? Do the values of academia demand engagement
rather than tolerance? How do we remain open to the possibility of
our own intellectual error such that we can genuinely learn from others?
How do we create classroom spaces that forward these goals?
The questions provoked a lively hour of interchange – all of
it civil. Overheard:
Civility does not always mean being nice. It means supporting equal
participation. It means not just tolerance, but an obligation to engage
all with respect. The closer connection we see today between people
and ideas leads to more categorizing of people, and thus to more ad
--Eve Stoddard, English/global studies
Do we treat students differently from how we treat each other? Do
we hold students to different standards? How far does tolerance extend?
Do we have an obligation to engage those who are disrespectful, or
just to let them talk without engagement? New scholarship in racism,
sexism and so on has made people defensive.
--Steve Horwitz, economics
It’s OK to criticize without being disparaging.
--Liz Regosin, history/academic advising
It’s possible to argue against Affirmative Action and not be
racist – but you have an obligation to support and defend your
position. We need to teach students--and ourselves--to distinguish “I’m
right” discourse from “here’s my contribution to
the exchange of ideas” discourse.
Students instinctively try to put moral values on each other’s
--Donna Alvah, history
Professors have to challenge those who claim the moral high ground,
but do it even-handedly. Our students should expect that we will push
them to defend and sharpen their arguments, regardless of whether we
agree or disagree with what they say.
--Karl Schonberg, government
Critique is the highest form of respect, if one is engaging the issue
and not the personality.
--Grant Cornwell, philosophy/academic dean
It’s human nature to associate the message with the messenger.
This is part of the evolution of our ability to detect deception. If
we are going to go against human nature and disassociate the two, we
need etiquette – we need rules.
--Ron Sigmundi, psychology
Martin Luther King Jr. is a model for respectful interaction—even
under relentless verbal and physical attack he called for civility,
--Rance Davis ’80, student life
We all need a stronger commitment to be less hostile, less angry.
--Pat Alden, English/international studies
We must have trust so discourse is benign, not virulent. Lack of trust
leads to lack of civility.
--Kerry Grant, English
To achieve trust, it’s necessary to find commonality.
This faculty doesn’t model trust.
--Mary Hussman, English/outdoor studies
We have lost the impulse to find common ground. We need to recover
Most college students are at an age when they are going through profound
changes, among the most important of which is learning to empathize
and see the world from the perspective of others. As we work to help
them do this, we should think carefully about the extent to which we
push them to specialize in a particular academic field. We need to
broaden their views, not narrow them, if we want them to find commonality.