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Club erects wall of free speech in SCC

By Ariel Glickman
On December 11, 2012

  • Students exercise their right to free speech on a white board installed in the Shapiro Campus Center Atrium by Young Americans for Liberty. Jenny Cheng

Last Friday, a free speech wall was erected in the Shapiro Campus Center by Young Americans for Liberty, with support from Brandeis Democrats and the Brandeis Libertarian Conservative Union. The groups made a formal request in an effort to spread awareness about and amend University speech codes on sexual harassment. The wall will remain in the building until tonight.

The motivation for the wall stems from the release of the Rights and Responsibilities handbook in August, said Nahum Gilliat '14, YAL vice president, in an interview with the Justice. After attending the Oct. 18 Town Hall meeting on the newly established Special Examiner's process, Gilliat has advocated for a change to what he believes are vague sexual harassment codes.

"According to the way that they've phrased it [in Rights and Responsibilities], ... if I asked you about your family, or ... if I flirt with you in a certain way that can be sort of sexual harassment," said Gilliat. "There should be codes for sexual harassment. They should be delineated, clear, objective, not very vague."

Gilliat takes issue with Section 7.2 in the handbook regarding examples of sexual harassment. He finds the following language ambiguous: "making or using derogatory comments, epithets, slurs or jokes with a sexual content" and "displaying of sexually suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons or posters, suggestive or obscene letters or e-mails, notes [and] invitations."

YAL's petition to preserve free speech states, "Our school's policies should prevent people from persistent, unwelcome advances of a sexual or bullying nature, but should not protect people from ideas and expressions that they don't like." Some of these "ideas and expressions" YAL defines as "displaying, sending, forwarding, downloading or otherwise distributing sexual materials via the Internet, computer, cellular data network, or e-mail" and "comments to, or about, any individual or their [sic] appearance that is sexually graphic or would otherwise tend to be degrading."

But, getting signatures for their petition is not sufficient, said Gilliat. The end goal, he added, is not merely to inform people but to amend the free speech codes. "[O]n the one hand, we're just raising awareness, ... trying to engage [the Brandeis community] and see what they] think. ... But, at the end of the day, we have to give Brandeis an alternative."

Director of Student Rights and Community Standards Dean Gendron did not respond for comment by press time.

Another catalyst for the wall was when on March 27, 2012, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting free speech on American college campuses, released a list of the 12 worst colleges for free speech. At number 12, Brandeis joined the ranks of Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins and Tufts. Since February 2008, Brandeis has been on FIRE's Red Alert list which labels schools that it believes disregard student and faculty rights. Brandeis is on the list for its mistreatment of Prof. Donald Hindley (POL).

In a Latin American Politics course in fall 2007, Hindley used the pejorative term "wetbacks" and was accused of violating Brandeis' non-discrimination and harassment policy. Hindley faced dismissal, and a monitor was placed in his classes.

The process for putting up the free speech wall was fairly straightforward. The request was forwarded to Stephanie Grimes, director of Student Activities, on Nov. 22. After meeting with representatives from YAL, the club was given the green light. "We work with student organizations ... all the time," said Grimes in an interview with the Justice. "And, it's not necessarily whether we say yes or no, it's more how can we work with the vision within the policies and procedures ... in order to not only meet the vision of the program but also meet the needs of the community."

Grimes' concern was not with having the wall itself but with libel. "You want to make sure that people understand that they have the ability to say what they feel and what they want to say," she said, but at the same time she wanted to ensure that defamatory comments were not made. "I think it's very easy to put something up that is negative to a community when you can be anonymous," said Grimes.

In her discussions with YAL president Aaron Fried '14 and Gilliat, the students agreed to monitor the whiteboard wall and erase any libelous statements. There is also a note on the board telling people to avoid libel. Profanity, however, is allowed.

"I was kind of shocked," said Gilliat in an interview with the Justice. "I expected resistance, and, what I got was okay, when can we do this? Do you have the materials? ... [W]hat will it look like? ... Also, what if this does get out of hand? ... How can we deal with that?"

Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said the idea of a free speech wall was never problematic. "I don't want anybody to think that the students had to go to Stephanie to get approval to have a board. That's got nothing to do with approving free speech. I mean that's kind of an oxymoron on this campus, of course. Free speech is an everyday of the experience here," he said in an interview with the Justice.

"Teachers teach us sensitive subjects-could it be on the Middle East, could it be on gay and lesbians ... or could it be on whatever issue makes us feel uncomfortable," said Gilliat. But, he continued, that while this is an important issue to raise, the free speech wall is not focused on it. Gilliat wants to talk to Hindley before addressing the matter. Hindley did not respond to a request for comment.

The free speech wall is just one component of YAL's agenda this academic year. Next semester, the club hopes to address affirmative action in light of Fisher v. University of Texas and argue for a color-blind admissions process.

Editor's note: Aaron Fried '14 is a columnist for the Justice. 

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