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Freedom of Expression: a Timely Research Project


“This is student-driven – I just ask questions,” A. Todd Franklin, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Teaching Excellence, affirmed. “They are the ones who will have to get buy-in by talking with groups who may be opposed to change. They are the ones who have to show why change is reasonable.”

Franklin, professor of philosophy and Africana studies, was responding to questions about the Levitt Public Affairs Center’s Freedom of Expression Research Group that he is leading this summer. Composed of rising sophomores and juniors who, according to Franklin, “are very intentional,” they include Hillary Bisono Ortega, Alex Cook, Kwame Odamtten, Dorothy Poucher, Laura Rodriguez, and Kayla Self. Their interests and majors span a wide range of disciplines, but they all share an interest in deciphering the questions related to freedom of expression on college campuses such as Hamilton’s.

The project is an outgrowth, in part, of the controversy generated by the visit of historian and political theorist Paul Gottfried in October 2017 when issues of free speech and what qualifies or disqualifies a speaker from coming to campus arose. The college’s current speech policy was instituted 51 years ago. A review seemed timely.

The student research group, whose work is funded by the Levitt Center, is focused on developing pathways forward that may lead to new practices and policies to cultivate, clarify, and codify a sense of and commitment to a well-grounded conception of the virtues and limits of freedom of expression within the context of the campus community.

The group’ work is divided into four phases:

1.) Concepts and Current Practices — The students have focused on surveying prevailing conceptions of freedom of expression both in the public sphere and as well as on college campuses including those of NESCAC (Northeast Small Colleges Athletic Conference) members, Ivy League universities, and public ivies. The students are analyzing policies, categorize them, and summarize their approaches.

2.) Controversies and Hard Cases —They are analyzing actual and imagined cases in terms of current policies and practices to develop a comparative sense of the strengths and weaknesses of various perspectives and approaches. Recent incidents on campuses including Middlebury College, Syracuse University and Reed College provide case studies.

3.) Conversations — During the fall semester, they will reach out to various constituencies so as to share analyses and discuss various perspectives in terms of the ways in which they might play out.  The goal of this phase is to foster informed and critical communal reflection that can guide the development of thoughtful, well-grounded, and favorably regarded recommendations.

4.) Cultivation of Ethos — The final phase will focus on “developing partnerships with various campus entities and offices to develop and implement concrete measures in terms of practices and policies that will foster a broadly shared and fully-lived campus commitment that embodies the concept and parameters of freedom expression expounded in the recommendations.” According to Franklin.

The students have varied schedules this summer, and each has different assigned responsibilities, but they meet as a group once a week to review and discuss their progress with Franklin. They have found that the policies of most NESCAC colleges talk about aspirations and a sense of community. Generally policies among all the institutions they have reviewed have run the gamut between those that emphasize community versus communication, compliance versus aspirations.

Developing partnerships and understanding among campus entities and offices of their recommendations will be the students’ charge in the fall semester. As Franklin affirmed, “No policy is going to be worth its ink if the campus isn’t vested in it, if there isn’t buy-in.” 

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