Op-Ed: Why Whitman College Isn’t Creating a “Free Speech Code”

Whether it’s in the Whitman Wire or the Washington Post, the issue of free speech on college campuses seems to be everywhere. Over the past year, many of our peer institutions have faced controversy brought on by provocative external speakers. Faculty, staff and students have stirred up campuses with controversial (and sometimes even hateful) viewpoints. A few seem eager to test the boundaries of what falls within the bounds of acceptable and appropriate discourse on campus. In response, some on Whitman’s campus are asking about our “free speech code.”

Whitman does have a number of policies affirming its commitment to academic freedom, that is related to but distinct from freedom of speech. Academic freedom means that the faculty can teach and research controversial topics without fear of dismissal. The faculty, the board of trustees and the administration have approved specific language in Faculty Code and the Faculty Handbook affirming Whitman’s commitment to academic freedom. But we do not have, and do not plan to create a “free speech code.”

President Murray asked a group of us to look at issues of free speech over the summer and formulate a constructive, proactive way for Whitman to ensure that we were prepared, as a community, to respond constructively if and when issues of speech arose during this academic year and moving forward.

In looking for clear trends in the issues faced by other campuses, we instead found complexity. Nearly every situation we looked at was multi-faceted and full of nuance. Rather than attempting to create a simple set of rules to govern what appears to be an infinite set of  possible circumstances, we are better served by accepting this complexity and acknowledging that we will never find the “right” solution to satisfy every party.

Instead of relying on a set of rules or policies, we decided to build the capacity of our community as a whole to work through these issues together. We decided to create common ground by articulating previously-implicit values around free speech that we believe are fundamental to Whitman, and then spend the year talking about these values and how they might look in application. We proposed using the very issue of free speech to model how our community might engage in dialogues around issues that lend themselves to multiple viewpoints and differing perspectives.

President Murray has repeatedly articulated the four principles that we believe already underlie Whitman’s values around speech: (1) We want more speech, not less. (2) Silence, and especially silencing others, is antithetical to intellectual inquiry. (3) We want dialogue, not monologue. Listening is as crucial a part of dialogue as talking, and we expect speakers to create ways for other people to speak. (4) We want intellectually responsible speech. Assertions need to be supported with evidence, and other speakers’ evidence needs to be considered.

We are pleased to see these principles framing conversations about free speech across campus, with students, faculty, staff and trustees. These conversations have been happening formally and informally, but regardless of structure, we have been busy encouraging the Whitman community to engage in a way that honors the principles and furthers our understanding of how we might respond to a speech-related concern on our campus.

So what’s next? We’ll continue these conversations throughout the rest of the academic year. We believe that this act on its own will increase our collective understanding of the complexity of speech issues, and hopefully make us all more open to other perspectives when issues do arise. This is the way we envision growing our community’s capacity to grapple with complex free speech issues: not by creating false clarity with overly-simplistic policy, but by developing our shared ability to deal with complexity; not by developing an administrative response, but by preparing for a meaningful community response.

Will it work? Time will tell. Not everyone will be satisfied with every outcome. But if we become skilled in having this conversation and follow the principles we have articulated, we believe Whitman will be well served.