The Enemies of Voltaire: Campus Speech Codes

Claremont Mckenna College President Pamela Gann sent out an email April 19 regarding the confrontation between a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization and a CMC faculty member. The email included a forwarded memo from Dean of Students Mary Spellman, and summarized the findings of the six-week investigation that the school had conducted. In those intervening six weeks, the incident and the subsequent investigation has been discussed at length in the student media and in the general student body. While the appropriateness and meaning of the professor’s words were scrutinized, along with the investigation’s alleged increased interest in SJP’s adherence to event protocol, the effectiveness and even the fundamental necessity of the school’s policy on demonstrations and free speech were not. These policies have produced a substantial amount of the frustration with these proceedings. Among these policies, both CMC’s policy on demonstrations and general events, as well as the Consortium’s “bias-related incident” policy are substantially responsible for the deafening lack of important discourse on the topic.

The policy on demonstrations has been addressed in other publications, but the “bias-related incident” policy, which has received less coverage, poses a similar if not more insidious threat to freedom of speech. This threat stems from the policy’s mere existence, as it can be used to silence and discredit opponents by mere insinuation. In this case, a Pitzer student, Najib Hamideh ’15, claimed that Dr. Yaron Raviv, a CMC associate professor, used racially charged language when addressing him. The longrunning investigation noted that Raviv apologized for the inappropriateness of his language, and also indicated that Raviv “stated that his intent in using the term ‘cockroach’ was to respond to the student by indicating that he thought of the student as someone who could not harm him.” Raviv also said that his harsh outburst was in response to Hamideh saying, “You’re a faculty here. I will hunt you down,” which Hamideh denied saying. In addition the report also noted that after the confrontation, Hamideh returned to the demonstration and attempted to identify the professor, when, “At least one witness reported that, while doing so, the student stated that he would ‘hunt down’ the faculty member. The student did not recall making the statement but did not deny doing so.” Such facts cast a new light on this incident, and add doubt to the prevailing version of the story. These new facts do change the discussion, but what was said and by whom should not have been at issue in this case. That these were the relevant questions covered by student media represents the failings of our current speech policy.

The main culprit is the “bias-related incident” filing, which should have been dismissed out of hand. The reason? Despite the policy’s vague name, the policy itself is quite specific. As stated in “[The Claremont Colleges Communication Protocol for Bias Related Incidents], the term “bias related incident” is limited to conduct that violates one or more of the Claremont colleges’ disciplinary codes and which is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or by analogous provisions of state law. A hate crime is an especially severe form of bias related incident, and such crimes fall far beyond the bounds of constitutional protection.” (Emphasis added.) Even at its broadest, the accusations leveled against Raviv did not even come close to meeting this standard. Speech that is not protected by the First Amendment is, by nature, an extremely narrow category, and also generally falls under the purview of actual law and renders such a code superfluous. Discourtesies, no matter how inappropriate or offensive they are deemed to be, are a private matter and should not be the subject of an official inquiry. When such speech turns to actual unlawful harassment, then the appropriate law should be applied, but again, the speech alleged in this case fell well short of that standard. To justify having a code like the “bias-related incident” policy, its purpose would have to be unique and significant enough to override any concerns that the code’s existence could endanger free speech. The “bias-related incident” policy does not meet such a standard, and is too easily wielded as an instrument that summarily silences opponents and moves discussion out of the public sphere and behind the closed doors of the investigating committee.

While the policies on events and demonstrations are not as detrimental to the freedom of discourse as the “bias-related incident” policy, they can still negatively impact speech, and are worth examining. In this case, two aspects of the policy were involved in a consequential manner. The first was the requirement that the event pre-register with the Dean. While the school does not specifically require protests to register, it does require, as specified in CMC’s Guide to Student Life, “any events held in any College building (including the residence halls); [or] events held outside…” to be registered. By basically requiring all events in public spaces to register, the college has created a bureaucratic obstacle that makes protest more difficult and restricts speech because of it. Ideally, the college would create a special dispensation in the event policy for peaceful political protests, with the understanding that that status would be revoked if the gathering no longer met the description of “peaceful political protest.” In addition to modifying the event policy, the policy on demonstrations’ terminology could do with some adjustment.

The college faces an understandable dilemma in this case, as it must balance its interests of protecting the rights and safety of its students while simultaneously protecting and promoting an atmosphere of free and vibrant speech on campus. To accomplish this, the college endorses free speech, but prohibits “disruptive or nonpeaceful actions.” The Guide to Student Life also goes on to define these terms, and while non- peaceful action is largely self-explanatory, it should be noted that disruptive activity is defined as “a deliberate disruption or an impedance of access to regular activities of the College or of the College community, including those which restrict free movement on the campus.” This definition does not recognize that protests are by nature disruptive from time to time, as they need to disrupt daily activity to a degree to have an impact. The policy could benefit from modification that amends it to prohibit significant or substantive disruption, so as to allow protesters to make their point while also allowing students to complete their daily activities. On the other hand, the students involved in a protest have an obligation to ensure that their activity is a peaceful protest and not a substantial disruption and a hazard to their fellow students. In the SJP event, this did not occur, as the investigation noted, “The event participants complied with requests to adjust their event so as to not restrict access for a period of time, but at a certain point reorganized themselves in a manner that again restricted access.” The right of free speech should be strongly biased in favor of the speaker, but on private property, especially, there should be some reciprocity to allow for the balancing of speech and safety concerns.

This recent incident, contentious and emotionally charged, has also exposed a deeper and more systemic problem. The SJP incident revealed significant flaws with the policies that regulate speech on campus, flaws that hinder the free exchange of ideas and hurt the Consortium’s role as a bastion of open and free communication. These flaws either harm speech by allowing individuals to be silenced and summarily branded as a bigot on the basis of hearsay, or by obstructing speech through prior restraint, such as when events must be approved before they can happen. Both flaws are an anathema to free speech, and need to be corrected. That way, in the future, we do not have to shift our focus from the main issue to assess the validity of valid speech, but can instead engage in discussion and argument about the substantive issue, and enrich one another.

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