Whitman receives letter from FIRE on listserv moderation

Alasdair Padman, News Editor

The Whitman College administration received a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on Friday, May 1. The letter requested that the college end its prior review of messages submitted to the three main listservs (students, community and announcements).

According to their website, “FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates students, faculty, alumni, trustees, and the public about the threats to these rights on our campuses, and provides the means to preserve them.”

FIRE allows students and faculty members to submit cases that concern potential violations of their rights. If FIRE decides that action is necessary, they will actively defend these rights through public or private advocacy. In the case of Whitman College, they chose to publicly share the letter. Whoever submitted the case remains anonymous.

The college’s decision to moderate messages sent to listservs was in response to events that took place in April surrounding the blatantly racist posts and comments made on the anonymous Instagram accounts Whitmanconfessionals and Whitmanconfessional2. Students posted about this racist behavior on the students listserv and called out individuals who engaged in such behavior, prompting Vice President of Diversity of Inclusion Thomas Witherspoon to make the decision to moderate all listservs.

On April 8, Witherspoon sent an email to the student body titled “Response to Troubling Online Activity,” in which he detailed the upcoming changes to the listserv.

“One proactive response that we are able to take is to limit the ability of members of our community to use our campus email lists in ways that are divisive and attack individuals and groups. To this end, effective immediately, all posts to our students, announcements and community email lists will be reviewed (moderated) before being posted. This process will happen automatically after you send a message to a given list. The decision to allow or reject a post will be based on criteria that will be shared with the whole community in a follow-up email. While I am saddened by the need to go in this direction, it has become increasingly clear to me that this is a necessary step,” Witherspoon wrote.

The guidelines for the announcement, community and student listservs were released on April 15 and publicized in a Whitman Today email. These guidelines can be found here. All three listservs are governed by four guidelines as included at the bottom of the page. They are:

  1. To avoid cluttering email lists, events and programs should be posted a maximum of three times: once the day of the event, once during the week prior, and once to “save the date” more than one week prior. By posting events to any of these lists, you agree to have your event listed in the Whitman Today email newsletter if selected.
  2. When possible, emails should not be cross-posted to more than one of these lists.
  3. These lists are not platforms for personal viewpoints or an appropriate space to attack or accuse individuals or groups. Whitman has other mechanisms to address concerns and grievances as needed.
  4. Posts that demean individuals and/or groups, threaten the safety of others on campus, or disrupt the educational process will not be allowed.

In a blog post titled “Whitman College restricts the listservs students rely on to remain in touch during COVID-19,” FIRE Program Officer Lindise Rank identified Whitman’s response as restricting student speech.

“Unhappy with @WhitmanConfessional2, students took to a public forum to engage in more speech, discussing the Instagram account and calling for educational steps to resolve it. The account administrator then also used the listserv to engage in more speech, defending his moderation policies. This conversation could have continued, allowing more Whitties to engage and voice their positions on important questions like how Whitman should approach race education, problems of racism and antisemitism at Whitman, and the costs and benefits of anonymous speech in our society,” Rank wrote.

Rank then deconstructed the problematic nature of Whitman’s response.

“First, as a college that promises broad free expression rights for its students, Whitman should have no part in moderating off-campus speech that happens on a third-party platform like Instagram. It is troubling that Whitman administrators promised to ‘be vigilant about disbanding anything that is not in alignment with who we are as a community,’ presumably referring to future confessions accounts that might crop up. (By the way, @WhitmanConfessionals3 is already alive and well.)”

“Second, the decision to institute prior review of previously-open email listservs effectively cuts off any further listserv discussion of the confessions account and the important issues it brought to the surface. It cuts off the more-speech approach that the listserv had previously fostered. And this consequence is only heightened now, in the midst of social distancing, when students and other college community members must rely more heavily on online tools like the listserv to continue these important conversations,” Rank wrote.

FIRE publicly released the letter that was sent to Whitman College administration. The full letter can be found here.

In an email to The Wire, Mr. Witherspoon shared a statement from the college administration.

“The decision to moderate the students, community, and announcements listservs at this time was primarily based on a concern that they were being used in ways that were inconsistent with the original intent of those lists, and that they inappropriately targeted individual students,” the statement read. “There has long been a leadership conversation to move to moderated lists as the content on these lists has evolved away from their original purposes. The decision to begin moderation mid-semester was the result of specific posts that could have proved damaging for many students.”

“When moderating these lists, we do so without regard for the viewpoint represented. For example, because one function of the lists is to promote student-organized events, we would allow these promotional posts within the guidelines regardless of the viewpoint represented by the event. Also, outside of these three lists, there are countless listservs on Whitman’s campus, most of which are managed by members of the community who request their creation, often students. We do not moderate these lists and they provide ample room for a broad range of dialogue.”

As of May 13, these guidelines remain in effect and will for the foreseeable future.