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Freedom of Speech on Campus

Office of the President

Freedom of Speech on Campus

Vincent Boudreau

Dear Colleagues,

I've always believed that achieving goals of mutual respect and inclusion requires a constant and regularly renewed effort, rather than some set of targets that we hit and then assume to endure. This past week, the "Check Your Blindspots" trailer was parked on Convent Ave., urging us to examine the ways that each one of us may have blind spots in how we see others. I believe that we do—and that the work of identifying and working through those blind spots is something we all need to undertake, in a spirit of good will. However good we are, we cannot pretend that we cannot do better.

In recognition of this, I spent the March cabinet meeting developing a plan for a campus working group on Diversity and Respect that would tackle issues of bias across religious, racial and gender lines. This group will build upon and extend previous efforts on campus, such as the Committee on Inclusive Excellence, and more ad hoc efforts such as those mounted in the School of Medicine and the School of Education, as well as those of a task force I established last Spring to look into the events surrounding a lecture by Israeli Ambassador Dani Dayan.
I'm writing now both to discuss some more immediate campus issues that require that we all think carefully about the values of free speech and mutual respect, and to announce that we're ready to populate that working group. Let me begin with the first issue.

Over the course of any academic year, events on this campus have stirred protests from various constituencies on and off campus. As a college committed to upholding the value of free speech, we should not and cannot shy away from controversy. Nevertheless, I will not allow conflict over such events to drag the campus into turmoil, nor allow the threat of turmoil to push us away from our First Amendment rights and open intellectual exchange. My job, and the college's job, is to allow an authentic exchange of ideas among those who disagree with each other, often passionately, to take place, while at the same time respecting each others' civil rights.

While the working group I described earlier has yet to truly begin its work, preliminary discussion in cabinet, as well as the deliberations of similar bodies on campus suggest some steps we can take immediately to preserve the peace on campus as well as our free speech rights.

  • First and most important, events that pose a reasonable chance of triggering controversy must be moderated by a faculty or staff moderator, including one or more added at the administration's discretion, to serve as an impartial representative as it relates to the topic at hand.
  • It will be the responsibility of the(se) moderator(s) to direct the discussion so as to maintain decorum at events.
  • Those who violate others' rights or disrupt events will be warned; should they persist in disrupting an event, they may then be escorted from the site. Anyone who is required to leave will have had ample warning that their behavior is unacceptable, but we will not allow that behavior to persist.
  • Where required as part of our existing event review process, security will be assigned to events, and event sponsors will be responsible for paying the expenses associated with these security details.
  • Finally, events may be video recorded, both by participants and by the administration. Those attending such events will be notified that their presence in the room indicates consent to be recorded. These recordings will be useful should it be necessary to review conduct at any such event—but will also help the college in refining our efforts to insure free speech and civility at these events.

I fondly hope that these measures can provide a foundation for a forward-looking policy that defends the best elements of our institution—its value for mutual respect and the free exchange of ideas.

Regarding the Working Group on Diversity and Respect: I am attaching a set of notes from the initial cabinet meeting. As you will see, we have broken the work of this group into three areas of endeavor, each relating to the way we treat one another across lines of race, religion, gender, age and all manner of other differences. We have divided the work into three issue categories as follows: 1) HR related issues (how we hire, retain, promote, or evaluate people who work on this campus); 2) Cultural issues (how we cultivate an atmosphere of understanding on campus so that incidents of discrimination or harassment are minimized); 3) The campus response in cases where something has happened that violates campus norms or individual or group rights in these areas.

We are currently in the process of populating this working group and will move working group members into one or another of these sub-committees. If you feel a calling to serve on one of these working group sections, or would like to nominate someone to serve, please contact Teresa Flemming (tflemming@ccny.cuny.edu) in my office. I expect the work of these groups to be an on-going activity of the college—that is, I'm not asking for anything like a final report at a given deadline.

I also think that for us to make progress in this work, we must undertake some real investigation into best practices and appropriate research. We stand at a moment in the life of our campus, and our nation, when the complexity of these issues is becoming more and more apparent—where the resilience of practices detrimental to a climate of genuine mutual respect cannot be underestimated. Places like CCNY that have claimed to play leading roles in promoting diversity and respect have an obligation to think more deeply about what we've been missing, and how we can do better. I hope this working group will help us move along that pathway; I know I can count on the support of this campus.

Sincerely,

Vince Boudreau
President