Free speech topic sparks Senate debate

Several students told the Student Senate on Feb. 10 they have been discriminated against on campus because of their political beliefs. 

The comments came during the open debate, a public forum on every week’s agenda when senators and members of the audience can discuss topics of their choice. For 45 minutes, senators debated the question of whether it’s possible to protect all political ideologies, because of the pitfalls of allowing any political ideology no matter how radical it is.

Among concerns was the potential that protecting free expression could mean Communists, Nazis or white supremacists are able to meet and have rallies on campus.

The topic was creating a statement on the principles of free expression, which the Faculty Senate discussed on Feb. 5. The Faculty Senate did not vote to create such a statement but instead voted 13-5-1, to recommend that the RWU administration engage the campus community to create a formal statement.

College Republicans President Kalasia Richer said she wanted the Senate to include political ideology as a protected form of expression.

“I think it’s important that we [protect political ideology] as much as we protect discrimination against race and sexual orientation and that we’re also recognizing that political ideology is a huge part of people’s identities… that also has to be protected as well,” Richer said in an interview with the Herald on Feb. 11.

“I am more so just advocating for them to include political ideology as a regular thing when they’re talking about freedom of expression.”

Richer claimed that on campus, people have faced discrimination due to their political beliefs. 

“That’s a very serious charge,” said Professor of Political Science June Speakman in an interview with the Herald. 

“To me, discrimination means deferential treatment in grading or not recognizing a student in class that had their hand up because you don’t want to hear their political beliefs,” Speakman said.

Richer said people don’t understand conservative values and that liberal ideology is taught far more often in classes. She said that seems to be the norm in the university realm.

“People just don’t know what conservatism is and it’s just automatically associated with racism,” Richer said. “I know we advertise ourselves to be really diverse, but we’re just not there yet with the diversity of ideas, which in my opinion is one of the most important things.”

Richer said she would like the university to bring more speakers on campus with a diverse set of ideas. She also recommended that the university spend an entire school year having events focused around civil discourse.

“We need to leave this school knowing how to talk to each other about politics without wanting to kill each other,” Richer said.

Speakman, who has been at the university for 24 years, said she has seen few cases of discrimination against conservative students.

“Now my experience as a faculty member at Roger Williams is that conservative students are plentiful and so are conservative faculty,” Speakman said.

“They aren’t spread uniformly across campus, but they do exist,” she added.

If students feel discriminated against by faculty in any way on campus, Speakman said they can come to her so she can mediate the situation.

“I have often said to students that come to me with this concern ‘tell me who the faculty members are’ and I’ll go talk to them.”

“That rarely happens,” she said. “I would like specific examples of when they don’t feel welcome.”

But some issues brought up are hard to handle. 

“I have heard examples given of faculty members criticizing President Trump in their class, making students that support President Trump feel uncomfortable. I get that,” she said. “It’s hard to know what to do about that without restricting a professor’s academic freedom.”

“You always want to hesitate when you’re dealing with speech on campus because academic freedom is the way we innovate and explore new ideas,” Speakman said. “You do not want to have professors or other students use language which is hateful. Finding balance on campus between those two things is very hard.” 

“If it’s simple garden variety conservatism, then that’s a widely respected and ageless form of political ideology,” she said. “So of course, we should provide a space for that ideology on campus.” 

“We do want to create an environment where all students feel comfortable to express their views and not to fear that a professor is going to punish them in any way because of their political views.”

Speakman said while she may teach about Karl Marx, she also teaches about John Locke and the Bible. 

The Student Senate voted to continue the discussion at a future meeting. Student Senate President Chris Costa expressed confidence that resolutions will be passed on this topic.  

He said political ideology “shouldn’t be something that you should be subject to discrimination over,” but he is undecided in terms of whether they would include that in a resolution on the principles of free expression. 

“if we can find a way to word it where those sort of [ideologies] that are really out there and discriminatory in and of themselves aren’t included, then yeah I’m all for it,” he said.

Costa said he has seen political discrimination on campus. 

“I’ve definitely seen students or prominent conservative students at this school be made fun of, either behind their backs or sometimes even more [overtly],” Costa said. “I definitely think it’s something that needs to be addressed.”