Since Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the University, responded to the Ann Coulter incident in November, the debate about free speech on Fordham’s campuses has ignited.
In the email, McShane highlighted the importance of “the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement” and the fact that “student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers, who represent diverse and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom.”
Many students, after reading the email, began to discuss the importance of free speech on a college campus. They were particularly interested in learning about times where students have had requests for events, posters, movies, entertainers, performances and the like, modified, unanswered or outright denied.
The students then back in January began collecting testimonials of students who have felt some sort of “administrative resistance”, according to their published report, most specifically related to student groups funded by the student activities fee that operate out of the Office of Student Leadership and Development (OSLCD).
Those testimonials ultimately became USG’s report.
The group of students who compiled the testimonials then took the observations from the testimonials and “highlight[ed] a number of concerns about the existing state of student speech and expression at Fordham, but also provid[ed] insights into potential remedies.”
The testimonials included incidents of posters deemed inappropriate, the banned performance of Spring Awakening, the denial of Cinevents playing Silver Linings Playbook, issues that the Campus Activities Board faces with bringing Spring Weekend Artists, the Flava Showcase from 2011, the title of “Fifty Shades of Ramblers” and the denial of the Vagina Monologues to be funded through OSL&CD to name a few.
The group then passed the testimonials on to Christopher Rodgers, Dean of Students and Alanna Nolan, Assistant Dean of Student Leadership and Development, who worked with the office of Student Affairs to provide their side of the story for each of the individual testimonials.
Rodgers and Nolan also included additional information, emphasizing the importance of conversation between administration and students in the report.
The report said of its findings “some of the issues we identify are structural, while others are perceptual, and nearly all of them can be improved with increased communication between students and administrators.”
The first recommendation of the report urges administration to remain consistent with the distinction that a club or organization’s “views do not necessarily represent those of Fordham University.” That distinction is required to be a part of every club’s constitution.
“We urge Fordham administration to more thoroughly consider this distinction between student programming and University endorsement when making decisions within the scope of Student Affairs, as the policy clauses above suggest,” the report said. “In accordance with these clauses, no student-proposed program or posting should be denied, altered, or modified on the pretense of it not aligning with the viewpoints or objectives of the University.”
The report then goes on to ask administration to be more clear when using Fordham’s Jesuit and Catholic Identity as a reason for bringing resistance against a possibly controversial event, performance, etc.
“We are concerned that the Jesuit and Catholic mission is often used as a reason to deem the content of student-organized programs or posting materials questionable,” the report said. “We believe that Fordham presents its Jesuit and Catholic tradition as one that embraces regular engagement with and intellectual discourse on controversial topics; yet, the use of our University’s identity to justify the rejection or modification of student-proposed content negates the very basis of this notion”
The report does acknowledge that offensive and hate speech has no part on this campus since according to the report “students admire the University’s attempts to minimize hate speech on campus.”
The report always offers many policy-change recommendations to help clear up much of the haziness addressed in the testimonials. The first deals with posting fliers, posters and advertisements around campus. The report “encourage[s] OSL&CD to ensure that the criteria it uses to flag questionable posting content be limited to preventing hateful or grossly offensive posting.” It also calls for more space, including the area around Edward’s Parade and bulletin boards in academic buildings, where students can post without having to go through the OSL&CD posting process.
The report also calls for the institution of an appeals process, which would allow students to follow a specific chain of people to speak with if their submission was modified in anyway or denied. “We propose instituting the following appeals process in the event that a student request is denied, altered, or discouraged,” the report said.
The student group would be notified that their submission has “met resistance” and then they can, if they’d like, meet with the House Committee that is chaired by the USG VP of Student Life to back the appeal, but this is optional. The next step is go to appeal the decision to the Assistant Dean for Student Leadership and Community Development. If the Assistant Dean denies the appeal, the group can then bring the appeal to the Dean of Students. The report said “if, after the second appeals process, the Dean of Students denies the appeal, this will be recognized as the position of the University.”
One of the main goals of the report is to establish appropriate timelines for submissions and appeals through OSL&CD. Many of the specific testimonials refer to incidents of delays of approval from the office.
For example, in one of FET’s testimonials, Kristin Guerin, FCRH ’12, recounts her experience of attempting to get a poster approved for an FET show.
“We had two different poster images for the show, both of which we submitted for approval over a month before the production,” Guerin said in the report. “Although one of the posters was approved, OSL did not share with us the approval (or tell us that the second was not approved) until the day before the show went up, far too late to advertise for the show.”
The solutions that the report offers include specific timelines for the poster approval and the appeals process. For the posters, the recommendation is that if a club’s posting is under review, OSL&CD must notify the club within a business day of the delay and they can expected to be approved or denied officially within two business days of the submission.
In the appeals process, the report said that after the group schedules a meeting with the Assistant Dean for Student Leadership and Community Development, they must make a decision within one business day.
“The timeline of this appeals process is critical to its success,” the report said. “If the appeals process takes so long that the proposed date has passed, then it will not address the issues brought up in the testimonials, and the time of the students and administrators involved will have been wasted.”
Another issue addressed in the report was the importance of conversation and communication between students and administration, stressed by additional information that Rodgers and Nolan provided.
“I hope the information we have provided here is helpful in your effort to assemble an accurate picture of how the free exchange of ideas is a key part of campus life and how we simultaneously engage students in conversation on our traditions, values and mission,” Rodgers said in the report.
OSL&CD has already been planning to implement new club leader training for the coming year to learn how to become an effective club leader with tools to help communicate better with administration.
“There may be times when students and staff may disagree but dialogue will always be an important component of our work together,” Nolan said in the report.
Ultimately, the goals of the report on speech and expression include addressing their identified three general areas of concern. The first is that policies and statements from McShane show support for student speech on campus. The second is that controversial content should be allowed to create dialogue on important conversation within the community. Finally, the third is addressing the policy situations proposed in the report to clear up the air of confusion.
For more information, please see usgrh.org for the complete “Report on Speech and Expression of Student Organizations at Fordham” or click here.