Rider finding balance between free speech, safety

By Megan Lupo

This spring and summer, faculty, staff and students will team up with legal experts to draft a free speech policy for the university.

Hoping to enact a policy for the 2018-19 academic year, Vice President for Student Affairs Leanna Fenneberg said that with the increase of student activism across campuses nationally, there have been measures taken at other schools to “address issues such as time, place and manner of this expression in ways that fully protect speech while also ensuring the safety of members of the campus community and limit interference with the educational mission of the institution.” 

Developing this kind of policy can “support Rider as an institution which promotes the free exchange of intellectual thoughts and ideas,” Fenneberg said.

Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Cindy Threatt will be spearheading the drafting task. 

Threatt was chosen because of her vast experience at Rider, Fenneberg said.

“In her role as dean of students, Dean Threatt has responsibility for oversight of the Code of Conduct for students,” Fenneberg said. “Given this role, her 17 years working at Rider and understanding campus dynamics, and her ability to lead efforts that engage a number of campus representatives, she was an obvious choice to lead this process.”

The inspiration of creating this policy at Rider was sparked during the fall 2017 semester when Fenneberg and Threatt reviewed other colleges and universities’ policies and took notes on how to frame this research to serve Rider’s best interests. 

“At this early stage of the process, it has begun with myself and Threatt, collecting campus policies that can inform our own understanding of how campuses are defining the purpose and structure outlined to protect free speech.” Fenneberg said. “For example, a group of Student Affairs administrators with the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey distributed a whole compendium of policies from member campuses to create a shared understanding and approach across institutions.”

Although “none of the specifics have been predetermined at this point,” Fenneberg said that it was crucial for the conversation of such protection at Rider to commence and to “engage a number of relevant stakeholders to define the content of the policy for Rider.”

Recently, a controversial topic discussed on college campuses is guaranteeing that expression of ideas will not harm the educational process and sense of inclusion of all people, while still protecting and encouraging free speech, Fenneberg said.

A solution that could be offered at Rider, Fenneberg said, is “to enter a parallel discussion about establishing a Bias Incident Response Protocol. This type of protocol, similar to free speech policies, is being implemented at institutions across the country.”

Student Government Association (SGA) President John Modica said students’ civil liberties should be the forefront of the policy.

“I would hope such a policy guarantees our students’ rights to free expression and an open exchange of ideas,” Modica said. “Regardless of what this policy addresses, though, I think it will also engage questions of how the university manages informal student and community member on-campus gatherings and events, which I am not sure has been considered just yet.”

Although the First Amendment protects all speech, even hate speech, there are legal exceptions determined by the U.S. Supreme Court which students might not be aware of.

Time, manner and place restrictions on speech include three requirements: that there is a danger to the public’s safety, the restriction is content-neutral and that there are alternative opportunities for the expression to occur.

However, even with these kinds of restrictions, all speech will be welcomed on Rider’s campus, according to Fenneberg.

“That essentially means that we will invite speech on campus that any one of us may disagree with and feel uncomfortable with. You’ve seen in the news examples of this – white supremacist speakers finding a platform on college campuses. There is often criticism as to why a campus would allow that perspective on campus if it doesn’t align with institutional ideals,” Fenneberg said. “The answer, of course, is that the U.S. Constitution protects the rights to speech for all individuals on all topics, whether we agree with the content or not. However, individuals who oppose that view also have the right to surface a counter demonstration to expose their own views.”

Students have the right to participate in free speech and respond to opposing viewpoints, as long as it’s within university regulation, which will be addressed in the free speech policy plan.

“As this policy is drafted, it would further define the process in which any infractions would be considered. For students, like all other student policies, it would include a referral and integration into our process defined in the Code of Conduct and overseen by the Office of Community Standards,” Fenneberg said.

The importance of student involvement in the process of the policy is recognized by Modica.

“I always ask for representation on anybody that has anything related to students or student life, or anything, really, in the university. I think that students should be represented on every committee possible, especially with the climate we are facing in higher education where free speech is such a point of contention,” Modica said. “I think there needs to be a representation of student voice when coming up with a policy related to that because we want to be reflective of what students need, which is ultimately a climate where they can exchange ideas, express how they feel and live out their education to the fullest extent in terms of expression, speech or assembly.”

Although there has been concern that students won’t be involved, Fenneberg reassured that is not the case.

Fenneberg said, “We’d like to include student voices in this process. Those individual students have not yet been identified, but I have spoken with John Modica about the importance of including SGA. Threatt and I have also discussed the importance of including student perspectives outside of SGA.”

Students have not been involved in making decisions about the policy, yet Modica, aware of the impending code since this past semester, stressed that any changes made at the university should have student input, as the policy is geared toward them. 

Modica said, “There are few university matters where students should not be involved. Something as central to student experience as speech and expression should naturally include students. I always think students should be at the helm of their university’s future.”

What also brought forth concerns was Fenneberg initiating this policy herself, as she worked for 10 years as assistant vice president at Saint Louis University, which posed restrictions on conduct.

According to the Saint Louis University handbook, “Speech and expression are not absolute rights at a private institution and must be examined in light of both particular circumstances and the broader values and aspirations of Saint Louis University as a Catholic, Jesuit institution. While restrictions on expression must be reluctant and limited, in some situations they may be deemed appropriate.” 

Fenneberg responded, “Each campus has their own unique mission and identity that frames the approach to expectations of behavior and policies. Certainly, at a religiously affiliated institution, that includes alignment with the religious identity that is different than we experience at Rider University. Interestingly, when I was at Saint Louis University, I encountered a number of student protests. We navigated those instances individually to protect free speech because we did not have an institutional policy to govern those decisions.”

Modica, who was one of the members of SGA who had input in hiring Fenneberg last year, has no doubts that Fenneberg will stay true to her intention to put students’ needs first.

“We chose Leanna for her disciplined leadership, strategic focus and passion for helping students,” Modica said. “Since day one, Leanna has acknowledged that every institution is unique and that no effective change can be done by making drastic impositions. The time she spent this fall learning about the university and building partnerships with existing campus parties demonstrates that understanding. I don’t think she has any interest in turning Rider into Saint Louis, only a stronger Rider.”

The purpose of the free speech policy at Rider is to not provide greater limitations on speech, but to ensure the rights that students have under the First Amendment.

Fenneburg concluded, “I think there is a perception that a policy on speech and expression is intended to limit the free exchange of information and ideas. I believe it is quite contrary – a policy of this kind actually exists to assure that the institution is in alignment with the First Amendment and promoting campuses as a place which invites challenging discourse and diverse ideas. The policy can provide guidance to individuals on how, where and in what time, place and manner they can do that to assure their views are heard in a way that doesn’t disrupt the educational goals of the institution.”

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