Many of the students here know about those pesky bias-related incident reports. They cluttered my inbox last year and became a joke for the most part. Luckily, this year they are less frequent and actually cover serious incidents, for the most part. Even so, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has named Pomona’s Bias-Related Incident Protocol the Speech Code of the Month for April.
FIRE is an organization meant “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” They bring attention to cases of colleges infringing on their students’ civil liberties and First Amendment rights. The Speech Code of the Month feature highlights a specific college code or law that hinders free speech. The article by Samantha Harris on FIRE’s website gives a general overview of the contradictory wording of the Bias-Related Protocol and references 2008 events that warranted a consortium-wide e-mail. I would like to point out that as a private institution, the college does not have a strict obligation to uphold First Amendment freedoms; however, the protocol states that conduct “which is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or by analogous provisions of state law” is considered a bias-related incident. Thus they take on the First Amendment as part of their own set of student liberties. FIRE may be a little behind in their announcement since this year, the consortium has sent out limited emails. To get a full understanding of what the article and FIRE is about, you should go to their website (www.thefire.org). This recent award makes me question the state of free speech on campus.
In fact, I wonder if there is true freedom of speech at Pomona. Most would say that there undoubtedly is. Look at Walker Wall, for example. Just weeks ago it was covered in the rainbow flag, which could be a quite controversial act if done elsewhere in the nation. Since the Pomona community is quite accepting of all genders, races, sexual orientations, and so on, it was seen as not a big deal—in fact quite commonplace. And look at the Workers for Justice campaign. Even though they are in opposition to the administration, they are allowed to march, protest, and post flyers all around the college. This is not to mention all the other open-minded, forward-thinking, and socially liberal causes that are supported and preached about on campus. What we have to remember is that freedom of speech not only applies to positive speech but also negative and uncouth speech.
Back to Walker Wall: Not even 24 hours after the rainbow was painted, it was partially covered by Bev Scavvy team names. There was an uproar about how it was “hurtful” and that it needed to be “fixed.” Even though the names were not written with malicious intent and instead written with the intent of having fun, I understand how it can be hurtful. However, as the FIRE article points out, hurtful words are fully and rightfully protected by the First Amendment. The administration said that this was not a bias-related incident, however, a school-wide e-mail was still sent out, and it implied that the covering of the flag was a bias-related incident. If the QRC has the right to display a symbol of pride for their community, other groups have just as much right to put up their own symbols. It could be a community which identifies themselves as Bev Scavvy participants or as something more concrete: a specific sexual orientation, race, or gender.
Pomona College as an institution has committed itself to allowing freedom of speech, but what of the students here? Do we have the responsibility to uphold freedom of speech for every person? This gets a little more complicated. As an individual, we are granted more rights than an institution. The only responsibility we have is to not forcibly suppress other’s speech because that would be infringing on their freedom. We can, however, react to what is said and, in the spirit of individual rights, have an open dialogue or debate. Looking at the Workers for Justice campaign, we begin to see possible suppression of speech. As I have personally witnessed, every time a worker speaks out, a student representative is right behind them. It’s almost as if the student is making sure the worker says the right things and does not deviate from the student group’s mission. If a worker isn’t even allowed to speak with TSL, a very neutral and unbiased paper, without a student representative being present, there seems to be some sort of intimidation going on. These are just my interpretations of events that I’ve either witnessed or heard from first hand-accounts, so if I am mistaken about these events themselves, feel free to correct me.
As a proponent of freedom, I realize that each person has the right to believe what they want and express that opinion without fear of being intimidated or reprimanded. Furthermore, people should not be forced by an overbearing institution to accept all other groups. By not acknowledging that everyone is allowed to think, believe, and say what they want and trying to make them conform to what we think is the correct way to think, we are being closed-minded. In fact, we are being a little Orwellian. Thus true freedom of speech not only applies to words of pride for your community or other positive announcements but also words of negativity or plain distain for other communities.
I’m personally disgusted by racism, genderism, ageism, or many of the other ‘isms,’ but I love that they are allowed to exist in this nation. Their criminalization would mean an end to free speech. So if the administration shuts out some maybe not acceptable or palatable communities on campus in favor of other more liberal, acceptable communities, they are hindering free speech. As individuals, we don’t have to accept and embrace others’ beliefs but, in order to preserve freedom, we do have to tolerate and allow other views to be expressed. This applies to everyone: liberals, conservatives, students, workers, racial minorities, racists, straights, queers—everyone.
I mean, it just seems unfair that if you want your opinion to be heard, you won’t let your opposition be heard, especially in a supposedly liberal, democratic society.