Free Speech Panel Sparks Contentious Debate

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On Wednesday January 31, Bates Student Government held a discussion and open panel regarding free speech on campus. Leading the panel were Kim Trauceniek, the Associate Dean of Students for Campus Life, Nick Dressler, the Assistant Director of Campus Life, and Margaret Imber, Associate Dean of Faculty. Members of Bates Student Action, as well as various interested individuals from the student body, joined their peers in Student Government. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Bates’ Free Speech policy, as well as an upcoming “statement of principle” regarding free speech from the faculty. Throughout the course of the night, the discussion grew more contentious, with students and administrators engaging in a back-and-forth style of argumentative discourse.

The Free Speech policy was made available to students in December of 2017, and sets guidelines for invited speakers, performers, and on-campus protests. The policy is, in many ways, a reactionary one; Imber stressed that the college felt they needed to quickly design a framework that defines free speech at Bates to prevent free speech crises that have happened at similar institutions, such as Middlebury and Berkeley. Perhaps the most controversial issues regarding the Free Speech policy are its specific provisions regarding protest. The policy first and foremost states that Bates “recognizes and supports the right of individuals or groups on our campus to protest peacefully,” but adds an addendum that “Bates retains the right, recognized by law, to regulate the time, place, and manner of protests.” The policy was heavily criticized by students at the discussion, who argued that it lacked student input and imposed unfair restrictions on student demonstrations. One member of Bates Student Action remarked to the panel leaders that the “policy could have engaged more with Student Government. I know that you offered it up for comments, but I don’t think from what I’ve heard that you’ve actually taken any of those comments. And I think for this policy to be a policy that really can fairly regulate a community, the community should have a say.” To this, Trauceniek responded, “I’m sorry you’re disappointed. I think that we’re here to really start that conversation.” The panel leaders also expressed that they had made efforts to include students in the decision-making process, but had received few emails and little student initiative.

More particularly, students rejected the “time, place, and manner” restrictions designed to prevent protests that may be “disruptive to the normal operations of the college or that violate college policy.” One student argued, “Why do people need approval from the Bates campus to use a microphone? That’s a staple of protest. That’s a staple of free speech.”

To counter, Imber responded that “every free speech case that’s been tested legally has permitted ‘time, place, and manner’ restrictions. So, I would assume that if people were asking for mics to use at 3:00 in the afternoon, it would be very hard to come up with a rational basis to deny that. Conversely, if they wanted to have their protest at 1:00 in the morning outside of a dorm, it would be easy to come up with a rational basis to deny the use of mics.”

The statement of principles is currently in a process of iterative drafting. Imber expressed, “The faculty are working on a statement of principles which are meant to be a general statement of values that administrators can turn to, so that when something requires them to implement the policies that were promulgated through the Student Affairs office, they’ll be able to see that the faculties have these values in this situation if we have a potential free speech problem or conflict.”
The final draft will be presented to the faculty in March. Until then, free speech will remain a hotly debated and enormously divisive issue on the Bates campus.

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