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Joining a national debate, Eckerd College takes big stand on campus free speech

University of Missouri students celebrate after Tim Wolfe, the system’s president, resigned in November 2015. Protesters clashed with student journalists covering the racial upheaval.
Published Oct. 2, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — When the Wesleyan campus newspaper ran an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, outraged students petitioned to slash the paper's funding.

When Duke University assigned a graphic novel featuring lesbian sex as summer reading, some freshmen objected, calling it "pornographic."

When a Yale professor's wife pushed back against the school's suggestion to avoid offensive Halloween costumes, she and her husband stepped down as housing leaders amid student outcry.

A debate is roiling college campuses across the country, pitting students concerned about inclusion and injustice against universities who are sympathetic but committed to free expression.

Free speech advocates paint a picture of coddled millennials who grew up insulated from difficult ideas and now bristle at the slightest offense. On the other side are student activists, often advocating for marginalized students in a college landscape of increasing diversity, whose protests have made headlines.

Now comes Eckerd College, the laid-back liberal arts school on Boca Ciega Bay, which has adopted a statement designed to head off the free speech fights that have erupted elsewhere.

"Without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a college ceases to be a college," the document says, borrowing from a statement released in 2015 by the University of Chicago.

Hear something offensive? Debate it. Loathe an idea? Protest it. But don't expect the college to limit free expression, the Eckerd statement says.

The school, with an enrollment of fewer than 1,800, will circulate it to students in the coming weeks.

It is not a policy, and it doesn't have penalties. It draws a line at hate speech and harassment. But it makes clear that the college won't disinvite controversial speakers or obstruct protests, encouraging students to engage rather than flee from difficult discussions.

"College should challenge the set of beliefs you arrive with," said Eckerd's dean of faculty, Suzan Harrison. "That's part of the point of college, to expose you to new ideas, some of which will make you uncomfortable."

Two of the most contentious — maligned — terms in the free speech debate are "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."

Safe spaces, broadly speaking, are places where students can gather with peers, such as an LGBT center or Hillel house. A trigger warning is a heads-up that something potentially distressing might arise, often for students who have experienced trauma.

Critics point to extreme examples, such as a situation Harrison described in which an Eckerd student visiting a circus-themed display in the library saw photographs of clowns. Horrified, the student told administrators they should have been warned.

More often, trigger warnings are a benign act of compassion. Last year's summer reading at Eckerd dealt with incest and sexual assault. Professors told students they could skip those topics on certain pages if needed.

Those concepts coexist with free speech, said dean of students James Annarelli.

Eckerd faculty members adopted the statement unanimously at their final meeting last year. The next step is to share it with students and start a discussion.

"A statement like this is really just a reaffirmation of the norms students have come to expect," said Claire Russell, Eckerd student government's vice president for academic affairs.

"I definitely support the needs of my fellow students, but I do also think that a lot of these topics can aid in better conversation and a deeper understanding," Russell said. "When those topics are shut down or completely eliminated from the classroom, then students don't get to have those conversations."

Jack Layden, student body president, said the statement is just "preaching to the choir."

Bombarded with anti-bullying messages since they were kids, today's students have been conditioned to report hostility, said Tom Miller, associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Education.

Finding that offensive speech on campus is protected can be jarring, he said, but learning to respond will help students in the future dealing with a racist supervisor or antagonistic neighbor.

Harrison said some students believe racism and sexism are relics, no longer a threat.

"I don't want us to perpetuate those beliefs because then we send them out into the world ill-equipped to deal with what they will encounter," she said. "Silencing ideas that are dangerous and negative doesn't make them go away — it often drives them underground."

Public institutions such as USF and the University of Florida have a baked-in commitment to the First Amendment, something USF makes clear when students take offense at a campus preacher or bloody posters set up by anti-abortion activists.

"There are students who want us to arrest them, repress them, tell them to stop," Miller said. "That is something we have to allow."

The school is working on setting up a bias response team, which will work with students who hear things that make them feel unwelcome, such as a racist epithet. It will not police speech.

"What we can say to a student who feels uncomfortable is that the statement is inconsistent with the values of the institution," he said.

The focus at UF is on creating a "culture of care," said dean of students Jen Day Shaw, an approach that balances free speech and the idea that "every Gator counts."

For example, the school facilitates visits from controversial speakers, but also helps protesters negotiate their demands and stay safe, she said.

Private schools have more leeway to adopt speech policies. The University of Tampa sees no need.

"We're in a real sweet spot where we feel like we really value rigorous intellectual inquiry and free speech, and we also foster an environment that allows all our students and faculty to feel safe and supported," said dean of students Stephanie Russell Krebs.

Eckerd leaders described a similar environment at their school, but felt the statement was a way to reaffirm that commitment in a time of upheaval.

Last year, protests over racist incidents at the University of Missouri saw clashes between students advocating for the removal of the university system's president and student journalists documenting the upheaval.

And tensions remain high at the University of Chicago, where a Committee on Free Expression drafted the statement that more than a dozen schools — including Eckerd — have adopted.

"That was in the real early stages of what has become an avalanche," said Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor of law who chaired the Chicago committee. He credited this generation of students for being vocal.

"They actually have the courage to say, 'This is upsetting,' " he said. "It's great that they're speaking out. I don't think what they should be doing is calling for censorship."

President Barack Obama joined the debate last year, urging students to argue issues and lamenting the "coddled" ones who would ban campus speakers with whom they disagree.

"That's not the way we learn either," he said.

Protesters seem to believe it is their right not to have a speaker come to campus, said Azhar Majeed, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who is worried by calls for censorship.

"That is a very broad and dangerous notion that seems to be picking up steam on college campuses," he said.

To students skeptical of the Chicago statement, who feel it doesn't respect the legitimate concerns of students, Stone has a warning.

"Once you open the door to suppression of ideas, you don't get to control whose ideas get suppressed," he said. "Once you create the precedent that says, okay, the university is allowed to do that, your ideas are going to get suppressed."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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