The Presidential Task Force on Free Expression reconvened in open forum last week, following the committee’s release of their draft of working principles. University President Ron Liebowitz, Provost Lisa Lynch and Committee Chair Prof. George Hall (ECON) met with community members on Wednesday to ask for critique and questions about the proposals.

In response to the growing national debate regarding free speech policies and political expression on college campuses, Liebowitz assembled the task force in November 2016, composed of members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students, with a mission  “to come together to reflect on and re-examine our University’s policies and practices related to academic freedom and free expression.” 

In March, shortly after violence broke out at Middlebury College regarding a controversial speaker, the task force held its first open community meeting, during which they asked Brandeis’ community members for aid in crafting a set of principles. The task force also “studied Brandeis’s history regarding free expression and academic freedom, reviewed other universities’ statements and practices, and engaged in conversations with a wide range of campus constituencies,” according to the draft. 

The first principle, “Maximizing Free Speech in a Diverse Community,” highlights the need for free speech in connection with a diverse and inclusive community, as well as the fact that “the university has a responsibility to encourage the airing of the widest range of political and scholarly opinions and to prevent shut down conversations.” 

The second principle, “Developing Skills to Engage in Difficult Conversations,” speaks of the University’s responsibility to encourage students to “risk discomfort” in controversial debate, while the third principle, “Sharing Responsibility,” calls for community members to respect one another, even in times of disagreement. 

In the fourth principle, “Rejecting Physical Violence,” the task force notes that peaceful protest is an acceptable mode of action, but physical violence and prevention of speech by any means is unacceptable and a barrier to free expression. 

Finally, the fifth principle, “Distinguishing between Invited Speakers and University Honorees,” explains that the University “should provide space for campus organizations of all sorts, including invitations to outside speakers.” However, the task force maintains, “openness does not constitute a university endorsement of the organizations or the speakers.” The University does stand to endorse a portion of a recipient’s life or work in the event of an honorary degree. 

In the open forum, a Heller School for Social Policy and Management student noted that it is very hard to define hate speech, calling for the University to encourage and teach members “to think before they speak.” 

Lynch responded that the Provost’s Office, with the Center for Teaching and Learning, is working with faculty on how to engage discussions in the classroom and help students understand the nature of how they think.

There are ways in which “a faculty member manages a conversation by both what they say and what they don’t say,” creating either an “active learning environment or an environment where learning is shut down,” Lynch said.

Another student questioned why the principles had “no clear line drawn” for what is discussing the idea of violence versus promoting violence. 

Hall responded, “first of all, what is illegal is illegal; we don’t change anything that is harassment [or] threats.” Hall added that the principles are intend not to draw a line. “We would like to the University to be a place where the statutory bounds of speech are broad,” he said.

However, he also noted, “Along with those wide bounds, we also have a call for personal responsibility. This is a minimalist document with a call for broad bounds coupled with responsibility.” 

A staff member from the Heller School asked whether there will be a more transparent process for honorary degree recipients. 

Liebowitz responded that honorary degrees will continue to follow a formal procedure in which nominations go through the President’s Office, are thoroughly background checked and further reviewed through the Board of Trustees. 

He noted his own frustration with the concept of honorary degrees: “It’s difficult to find people who could not evoke any reaction by anybody. … If someone has done something noteworthy, they’ve probably also done something noteworthy that you probably don’t want to note.” However, with “honorary degrees, if you stick to the issue what message you want to leave your graduates, you’re probably not going to run foul with that particular issue.”

Student Union President Jacob Edelman ’18 asked for clarification on the use of the terms “members of Brandeis” and “Brandeis community,” asking how the principles delineate who is a member or not. 

Hall responded, “We wanted to make it clear that these principles apply not only to faculty and students but also staff … We’re a big family and should be a big family and these principles should apply to everyone.” 

Hall mentioned that, because Brandeis is a private university, a person must be invited in order to step onto campus, and to be invited, that person is a guest of the Brandeis community.  

A student asked, “What happens if there’s a club that invites a speaker that the administration feels shouldn’t be on campus?”

Hall highlighted section one: "The University has a responsibility to encourage the airing of the widest range of political and scholarly opinions and to prevent attempts to shut down conversations, no matter what their topic." He further clarified, “Being controversial is not a reason to not invite someone.”

A Heller School student noted the recent event of swastikas written on dormitory white boards and questioned whether there exists differences of visual versus written statements. 

Hall responded that those specific instances constituted a threat to somebody and that “no one should feel threatened in their home.” Liebowitz added that there is an additional distinction to be made between attacks on an individual versus attacks on a group or ideology. 

The drafted principles are available online for view. The last open forum to discuss the draft principles will occur on Oct. 30.