I bumped into former student body president Tom Sabram last week. As we caught up, I mentioned that this year has felt more subdued than past years. There has not been a single widespread controversy, unlike what we have seen in years past.
Tom jokingly reminded me there is plenty of time left.
All of the major controversies I can remember from my time here can be connected by one thread: All of them involved students engaging in some form of expression that offended the sensibilities of other students.
Given that connection, there was some level of concern among student organization leaders when President Cohon formed a committee to review the Controversial Speakers Policy in August of 2005.
Last week, Associate Vice-Provost for Enrollment Michael Murphy delivered the committee’s recommendation to the Undergraduate Student Senate for consideration. The proposal incorporates a revision of the Carnegie Mellon University Policy on Free Speech and Assembly and Controversial Speakers, a set of concrete guidelines for planning campus events, and a newly proposed policy on the presence of independent security personnel on campus.
The policy in place today is a strong statement in favor of free expression. It’s a policy of which we should all be proud.
Cohon created the committee to review this policy in 2005, just months after a set of lecturers drew outrage from some parts of the Jewish community that spring semester. I was afraid it would let the discomfort of conflict curtail the open-mindedness of our community.
It was a legitimate concern.
Malik Zulu Shabazz — who is outright racist against whites and Jews and the was most controversial of that semester’s speakers — was a member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which is unrelated to the Black Panther Party. In the weeks after Shabazz made his stop at Carnegie Mellon, a member of the Progressive Students’ Alliance, Daniel Papasian, organized a lecture given by a member from the real Black Panther Party, Ashanti Alston. Then dean of Student Affairs, Murphy — who ended up chairing the committee to revise the Controversial Speakers Policy — gave serious consideration to canceling the lecture in the interest of pre-empting a situation that had the risk of exacerbating the controversy on campus. Fortunately, Murphy considered our right to hear, consider, and make our own decisions and did not cancel the lecture.
Now with the committee’s proposal open for public review and discussion, it’s clear that respect for those rights were in the mind of everyone involved, committee and general community member alike.
Reading the proposed policy, the committee has done us a great service. Though the text has lost some of its crisp, potent language, the policy’s spirit of open-mindedness and freedom of inquiry was resoundingly affirmed. Furthermore, the guidelines it sets forth for organizing campus events are clear and constructive.
If the policy lacks anything substantive, it is that it should more explicitly require protestors to be peaceful in their disapproval. Their right to protest is affirmed, as it should be. It should be clear that they do not have the right to prevent others from hearing a speaker with whom they disagree.
If controversy does arise this year, this policy proposal leaves me confident that our community will be ready to allow the controversy to run its course appropriately.
Bradford L. Yankiver, publisher of The Tartan, welcomes all responsible questions and comments, which may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.