Freedom of speech, revised

Following extensive research last winter, the Controversial Speakers Policy Committee has finalized its proposal to replace the current controversial speakers policy. The new document, called the Policy on Freedom of Expression, is now awaiting the approval of several groups of students and faculty.

As it stands, the controversial speakers policy does not limit visiting speakers. If enacted, the new policy will not add any restrictions to that right.

“Any group can invite anybody to the campus,” said William Brown, the chair of the Controversial Speakers Policy Committee and a biology professor. “We believe that the students have the right to hear all points of view.”

The new policy is also intended to replace the university’s Freedom of Speech and Assembly Policy, one closely related to the subject of controversial speakers.

“The two policies were always presented in tandem, but this combined them,” said Michael Murphy, university associate vice-president and committee member. “Both need to be understood.”

As a supplement to the proposed policy, the committee drafted a set of guidelines called “Considerations in Planning Campus Events.”

“We said we don’t want them to be part of the policy because we don’t necessarily want them to be law,” Brown said. “Every time you start writing down something, then people start trying to figure out how to get around it.”

The considerations are mostly to guard against the potential irresponsibility of visiting speakers, Brown explained.
“Anytime you bring a speaker to campus — anytime you have an activity — there are certain things you need to plan for,” he said. “That includes where you’re having it, who you’re affecting, and all those kinds of things.”

Brown stressed that the proposal upholds the ideals of the current policy on controversial speakers.

“The intent was never necessarily to revise the policy,” he said. “The intent was to review the policy. To ask questions like, ‘Does it still apply?’ [and] ‘Do the words still have the same meaning that they did in the ’60s when it was first put together?’ ”

At Carnegie Mellon, administrators routinely review policies every five years, though the high volume of policies often delays the process. Prior to the committee, definitely the controversial speakers policy had not been reviewed since its creation in the 1960s.

According to Brown, the committee hopes the new policy will be approved by the end of the semester.

“The reason it’s coming back after a year of being on the president’s desk is because, for it to become the new policy, it has to be approved by the Faculty Senate, the Student Senate, the [Graduate Student Assembly], and the Staff Council,” he said.

The Faculty Senate and Staff Council have already voted in favor of the proposal, and the remaining constituencies will decide in meetings following Thanksgiving break. After that, the policy will go before the President’s Council and the Dean’s Council.

The committee was formed in August 2005, months after three visiting speakers caused students and faculty to question the current policy. One such speaker was Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairman of the New Black Panther Party, whose racially charged points of discussion made students uncomfortable. Also that semester, the University Lecture Series invited Ali Abunimah and Norman Finkelstein to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both argued radical, anti-
Israel perspectives.

“A lot of people were afraid that the committee would be in response to that,” said Nicolette Louissaint, a 2006 graduate in chemical engineering. Louissaint served on the committee from its creation last August to its finalized proposal last December. Students were worried that the spring speakers would inspire a stricter policy, Louissant explained.

Composed of students, faculty members, staff, administrators, and an alumnus, the committee was responsible for gathering the ideas and feelings of the campus community. Members harvested input from e-mail feedback, open forum sessions, town hall meetings, and meetings with more than 20 student and faculty organizations. The committee also considered the policies at other universities and colleges.

One such college, Jesuit institution Boston College, added a policy last month that tightened the reins on its students’ right to listen. According to The Harvard Crimson, student organizations are now required to supply an accompanying “Catholic perspective” to the presentations of controversial speakers. Abortion is the most guarded-against subject of discussion, said Jack Dunn, spokesman for Boston College.

“We probably have the most open of the policies with the exception of a couple of other schools.” “Where else but in the university should you have a forum where people can come and speak their mind?”