DANIEL NESBITT ’22
Arriving on campus as a freshman can be very tough – not knowing where to go, what to do, and who’s who – but it was made even more difficult when everyone was talking about these social media and faculty incidents that you were completely oblivious to. My first knowledge of these incidents came from President Berger-Sweeney in her convocation speech. Addressing the situation, she explained, “sometimes, community members make mistakes and say things that don’t represent our community values. Unfortunately, that happened this summer.” She continued to get to the root of the issue: freedom of speech. She said, “Hateful, hurtful speech has no place here. …I value free speech, but there are consequences for speech that harms individuals or espouses hate, and we hold individuals accountable for their actions.” This utterance confused me, and I have since had an incredibly difficult time trying do discern if the college does, in fact, care about freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is a widely endorsed ideal on all ends of the political spectrum. It has come to the forefront of debate in American politics with the shouting down of campus speakers, social media companies banning certain groups from their platform, as well as incidents like the ones which occurred this summer. I am very concerned with the college’s view on freedom of speech – not because of what I know they believe, but because of what I don’t.
President Berger-Sweeney claimed to value freedom of speech, however “hateful, hurtful speech” is still legally protected. While Trinity is a private college and has every right to hold different viewpoints on these incidents, if freedom of speech was truly the college’s main concern, Trinity would adhere to the constitutional and legal standards for free speech.
In addition, President Berger-Sweeney held that “there are consequences for speech that harms individuals or espouses hate, and we hold individuals accountable for their actions.” Firstly, what constitutes harming an individual? Is it solely based on one individual’s subjective interpretation of the speech? Is it purely based upon the administration’s interpretation? Furthermore, will the college discipline students for simply offending others with their speech? All these dubious questions would be solved if the school adopted a “Chicago statement,” or a commitment to uphold academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, therefore allowing the college to adhere to the rigorous and well-established precedents of unprotected speech.
As a new student on campus, I have observed that many students care about freedom of speech as well as these summer social media incidents. Questions about the details surrounding the posts and, more importantly, the college’s reaction to these posts, are frequently heard around Mather Hall and The Long Walk. If the buzz amongst students is so palpable, then why won’t the administration acknowledge the necessity for a meaningful and substantive reaction? The beginning of the school year provides the opportunity for the administration to actually change its ways, hopefully effecting the viewpoints of the newest students. Despite this opportunity, the administration has yet to change its habit of nuanced spinning. The school should swiftly and directly address both the summer issues and the larger issue of freedom of speech, as it will give the students a clearer understanding of the school’s stance on freedom of speech and its implications as the year progresses.