Last semester, the Student Development Committee enacted the Freedom of Expression and Public Assembly and Forum policy. The policy outlines appropriate and inappropriate speech, according to Vice President for Student Development Dennis Negrón.
The Student Development Committee, which is made up of both students and staff, began developing the policy during the 2020 school year, according to Negrón. He said the committee decided to create the policy in an effort to shield the school from lawsuits.
“We were reacting to … legal counsels of higher education saying that if you don’t have a policy that deals with personal expression, you are leaving yourself open for lawsuits,” Negrón said.
According to President David Smith, in addition to guarding Southern from potential lawsuits, the Freedom of Expression and Public Assembly and Forum Policy intends to dissuade hate speech.
“I think hate speech particularly has really grown in recent years,” Smith said. “And, it’s just the opposite of how we would like people to communicate on our campus.”
Sophomore nursing major Natalie Marden said she has witnessed hate speech on campus in the form of slurs. She believes the policy is a good addition to campus.
“I think personal freedoms should end where hurting others begins,” Marden said. “Hate speech can create an environment of fear and dread on campus that may hurt those affected by it. Everyone should have a right to feel safe on this campus.”
Junior social work major Seth Bermudez said he has been subject to demeaning comments on campus. Bermudez supports the Freedom of Expression and Public Assembly and Forum policy.
“I appreciate any push for canceling hate speech on this campus,” Bermudez said.
Senior chemistry major Tyler Fisher has not personally experienced hate speech on campus but believes the policy will be helpful for those who have.
“[I think the policy is a good idea] to help ensure people feel comfortable on this campus,” Fisher said. “If people realize they can’t say [hateful] things and there are actual deterrents, then I am all for [the policy].”
The policy does not discourage students from discussing controversial topics. It states that these topics should be discussed in a respectful manner. Additionally, the policy notes that some topics discussed in class may be contrary to Southern’s values. According to the policy, such topics should only be discussed if the academic department believes it is valuable to learning.
“[The policy] does not affect what goes on in the classroom,” Negrón said. “… We have academic policies that dictate what can happen in the classroom. And those academic policies determine how a professor chooses content.”
Smith said he believes it is appropriate to discuss difficult topics in the classroom, but he notes that these conversations should be done in a polite manner.
“Do it in a way that shows that we respect other people, we love other people [and] we care about other people,” Smith said.
Recently, the University Senate approved a version of the Freedom of Expression and Public Assembly and Forum Policy for employees. According to Matthew Tolbert, chair of the University Senate and associate professor in the School of Education and Psychology, the employee policy was created as a response to the student policy.
Tolbert said the policy does not outline what is appropriate to discuss in the classroom setting. However, like the student policy, it seeks to encourage respectful discussion of controversial topics. If a faculty member is found abusing the policy, he or she will be subject to the Discipline Policy, according to Tolbert.
Tolbert said the new policy’s main purpose is to “provide helpful guidelines for the meaningful expression of ideas that are consistent with our mission and values. This will help facilitate interactions on campus that are respectful and contribute to better understanding of important issues.”