Brandeis administrators, students, faculty and alumni discussed the challenges of creating an environment optimal to the exchange of ideas at an open forum convened by the Task Force on Free Expression on Monday.

 The open forum came just two weeks after students at the University of Florida protested on campus while prominent white nationalist Richard B. Spencer delivered a lecture at a university-sponsored event. University President Ronald Liebowitz referenced the event as he introduced the forum topic.

“This is a challenging and difficult topic,” said Liebowitz. “But we’re trying to thread the needle and find what is best for Brandeis, and the Task Force on Free Expression did an excellent job of framing some principles for us so we can start thinking about those policies.”   

Task Force Chair Prof. George Hall (ECON), Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Mark Brimhall-Vargas and Prof. John Plotz (ENG) were among the members of the task force present at the discussion held at the Intercultural Center. There were approximately 30 people in attendance.

The task force presented the latest draft of a set of five principles, which will serve as a basis for future University policy related to free speech on campus. Brimhall-Vargas described the draft as a “narrow balancing beam,” in which only the principles and language agreed upon by the whole task force were included.

Several students and faculty members who attended the event voiced concerns about the fear that students on campus feel when expressing unpopular views, as well as the perceived psychological and physical fears faced by marginalized students as a result of unlimited free speech.

“Something that comes up when we talk about free speech is the comfort of sharing ideas and the fears associated with that,” said an employee of the peer advocate crisis center. “My question is,what kind of fears is the University addressing?”       

Michelle Shain, ’04, Ph.D ’16, spoke about how Brandeis’ obligations as an institution of higher learning can sometimes come into conflict with the University’s emphasis on social justice values. The forum revealed how two points of Brandeis’ mission statement — its responsibility to promote an exchange of ideas for the sake of learning and its identity as a community that upholds social justice values — can collide.

“As a university, we are first and foremost an academic enterprise of research and education,” Shain said. 

 In response to this idea of colliding principles, Brimhall-Vargas differentiated between campus spaces and speech that may be conducive to learning in the classroom environment, which is protected through the faculty’s academic freedom, may not necessarily have a place at a campus event. The other members of the task force agreed that it was important to differentiate between these spaces and considered how free speech should be treated differently given the space in which it was exercised.

 “There is a distinction between what happens in the classroom [and] what happens, say, in an event, that all of these things are different and might be treated differently,” said Brimhall-Vargas. “Classes have a responsibility to air multiple ideas, but what happens in a classroom is different from, say, what happens in a residence hall.”

One student spoke of the importance of inviting speech that challenges beliefs as means for personal growth. “If I had blocked off everything I didn’t want to hear, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Brandeis,” they said. 

Brimhall-Vargas responded to this comment by arguing that not all students are affected by speech in the same way.

“I don’t know how you identify, but visually I identify you as a white male person,” said Brimhall-Vargas. “As a person that’s a male and a person with white skin, I don’t have my identities assaulted and so the notion that you can take it or leave it is something of a luxury.”

Although the task force had originally scheduled a total of three forums, with Monday’s being the final one, Liebowitz has received several requests to hold more forums. In response, he confirmed that there will be additional opportunities for members of the Brandeis community to discuss the principles before members of the administration gather to formulate policies based on the task force’s final draft. 

Liebowitz will send out the most updated draft of the Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression to the Brandeis community. It is also available for view online.