A Look at Fordham’s Freedom of Speech Policies

Dean of Students Keith Eldredge oversees the student conduct policies regarding freedom of expression on the Lincoln Center campus. (ADRIANA BALSAMO-GALLINA / THE OBSERVER)
By STEPHAN KOZUBNews Co-Editor

When it comes to college campuses, freedom of expression can be particularly difficult to navigate. At Fordham, there is a Demonstration Policy, a Speakers Policy, a policy pertaining to Bias Related Incidents and/or Hate Crimes, a Distribution of Literature Policy and a Publicity and Posting Policy.

“By its very nature, the University is a place where ideas and opinions are formulated and exchanged,” the university’s policy on dissent reads. “Each member of the University has a right to freely express his or her positions and to work for their acceptance whether he/she assents to or dissents from existing situations in the University or society.”

The following statement in the policy, however, sets the tone for the policies overall.

“To insure that freedom is maintained, expressions of assent or dissent cannot be permitted to infringe on the rights of the members of the University community or the community itself – not only their freedom to express positions, but their freedom to engage in other legitimate activities,” the Demonstration Policy reads. “Actual or threatened coercion or violence are abhorrent in a University because they can destroy those rights and freedoms which are necessary for the existence of the University.”

That philosophy is present in the Demonstration Policy. Approved demonstrations are allowed to proceed, as long as they do not hinder entrances, exits, passageways and the normal flow of pedestrian or vehicular traffic, do not create a disruptive amount of noise, employ force or violence or constitute an immediate threat of force or violence, disrupt the university’s normal functions, or fail to fulfill the responsibilities of organizers and participators outlined in the policy.

In order to hold a demonstration, students must schedule a meeting with the Dean of Students, who will meet with the organizer(s) within one business day, according to the policy. The demonstration cannot be scheduled any less than 2 business days after the meeting. The Demonstrations FAQ page, however, states that “in some cases, the Dean can work with groups on even more rapid turnaround.”

The page also states that “a request to use space at Fordham for a protest or a demonstration has never been turned down based on the viewpoint or content of the protesters/demonstration.”

“The purpose of that meeting is to get a sense of their parameters, what they’re looking to do, with a focus on time, place and manner and impact on the rest of the university community,” Dean of Students Keith Eldredge explained. “So from that conversation, then I go to the space planners on campus, the folks that oversee reservations for the outside plaza or if somebody wants to do something in a classroom or meeting room.”

He explained that in situations where students want to protest an event on campus, they would try to find a way to make it work. “We’re not going to put you in the multipurpose room in 140 for an event that’s happening in the atrium,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense. But where could you reasonably be that’s going to allow the event to continue in the way that it’s designed, but also give you the presence for what you want to have?”

The consequences of violating the Demonstration Policy vary, according to Eldredge.

“Generally, and I would say this for many violations, a first time offense with no mitigating factors is going to get a low level sanction,” he said. Among the possible sanctions are a written warning, Residential Life Probation or Student Life Probation.

As outlined on the university’s website, a Residential Life Probation constitutes a warning “that future violations of the residence hall regulations or University Code of Conduct will result in dismissal from the residence halls” and that “residents on probation at the time of the housing lottery will automatically be placed in overflow housing unless notified that this condition of Residential Life Probation is waived by a hearing officer.” Under Student Life Probation, a commuting student “is warned that future violations of the University Code of

Conduct or residence hall regulations on or off-campus may result in further and more serious sanctions, including University Disciplinary Probation.”

Eldredge said, however, that if a demonstration engages in “harassing behavior towards the community or does things like block the entranceway or goes into classrooms and disrupts the academic business of the campus, that would warrant a higher level of sanctions versus a demonstration that’s simply unregistered.”

The Speakers Policy is broader, with the three main prohibitions being that speakers cannot “threaten to endanger the safety of any member(s) of the University community, pose a threat to the physical facilities, or obstruct or disrupt the normal functions of the University.” It adds that “expression that is indecent or is grossly obscene or grossly offensive on matters such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual preference is inconsistent with accepted norms of conduct at the University” and that “obviously, and in all events, the use of the University forum shall not imply acceptance or endorsement by the University of the views expressed.”

Fordham ran into its own issues with controversial speakers back in 2012, when the College Republicans tentatively booked Ann Coulter to speak at the university.

“To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement,” University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., said in a statement to the College Republicans at the time. “There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.”

McShane preceded this statement, however, with “Student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers who represent diverse, and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom. Accordingly, the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus.”

The College Republicans cancelled the event, a decision which McShane commended in a later statement.

Eldredge said that the policy of the university is to “try to give pretty wide latitude” when it comes to speakers and their points of view, “unless it gets into that area of violence, danger, or safety issues” as outlined in the policy.

Regarding Posting and Publicity, the United Student Government (USG) is working on establishing a Community Posting board on the garden level of the 140 W. building. Previously in place outside of Student Affairs’ old office in the Lowenstein building, the board offers students not affiliated with clubs and official entities at the university a space to post flyers with Student Affairs’ approval.

Regarding preserving freedom of expression and safety on campus, Eldredge said that “I think a big piece of my job is focused on the safety and well-being of students.”

“I think if students don’t have the basic levels of safety taken care of, we can’t get to those other issues, and so safety has to be paramount,” he said. “And that cuts across not just speakers on campus or demonstrations, but a lot of the work we do related to student discipline, our alcohol policy, our approach to the amnesty policy for alcohol issues and our approach to sexual assault. And so that’s got to be present.”

He elaborated, however, that he thinks “we need to be careful that we don’t use that as an excuse to stifle the free exchange of ideas, because it is an academic institution and that’s part of what students should get in an academic institution–to be exposed to different ideas, to hear new things, to have their own beliefs challenged in an appropriate way so that there’s dialogue and conversation and not just simply everybody repeating the same thing. So we have to have that opportunity for free speech, knowing that that safety is there on a foundational level.”

Full text of Fordham’s policies regarding freedom of expression can be found on the university’s website.

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