Students at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) recently authored a stirring "Free Speech on Campus" resolution calling on the college to honor its moral and legal duties as a public institution under the First Amendment. Michael Christian, a student senator at GCC, contacted FIRE last June to ask about speech codes at his school. FIRE’s analysis found several problematic policies on the books at GGC. Armed with FIRE’s analysis, Michael and other student leaders on campus, including Shannon Conner, Travis Jones, Quinton Malone, Tiffany McCarty, and Tyler Vining, authored the "Free Speech on Campus" resolution to call for reform. On February 4, this resolution passed with the overwhelming support of the Student Government’s Senate and Executive Council. The resolution’s detailed prescriptions for improving GGC’s policies are a great first step towards reform at GGC, and we hope administrators are taking note!
FIRE asked some of the authors and supporters of the resolution, Michael Christian, Travis Jones, Tiffany McCarty, and Seijin Tranberg, to talk about their experience of writing and passing this resolution and what advice their coalition has for other students who want to support student speech rights on campus:
FIRE: What got you started promoting free speech on your campus?
Tiffany: As a wife, mother, and grandmother, I was dismayed that GGC relegated the 1st Amendment to extremely small areas on campus as long as the official application was approved by the administration while disclosing the subject. The requests could be denied based on content and removed the opportunity for spontaneity.
Travis: I founded the GGC chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) in the spring of 2012, and at the first meeting, members voiced their frustrations with the current freedom of expression policy. They made me aware of the free speech zones that regulated time and place of free speech, and of the other limitations of free speech on campus. YAL made free speech its sole campus issue from then on.
Michael: I had gone out one day to an off-campus mixer where students and faculty members, particularly those learning/teaching English, would have frank and open conversations. As an SGA senator representing GGC’s school of liberal arts’ students, I found the issues they had with the college fascinating. I recognized a palpable frustration with the campus policies regarding free speech, as some of the people felt that it obstructed the quintessence of what a campus for higher education should be. I found that free speech zones, which covered very little of the campus, were only available a few hours a day and could only be used through a reservation.
FIRE: How did your group decide to challenge the policies at Georgia Gwinnett?
Tiffany: I began to make a fuss about the policy as a Senator in the Student Government Association during my tenure in 2011. I was able to recruit several of my fellow student leaders (Travis Jones, Stephen Michael Christian, and Quintin Malone) to join my defense of free expression on our campus.
Michael: After learning about FIRE, Travis and I requested that FIRE review GGC’s speech codes, and FIRE drafted a memorandum which gave GGC a "red light," the lowest possible rating it gives to the colleges and universities it reviews. When it received the memorandum, GGC’s Young Americans for Liberty contacted other organizations to join in advocating for free speech on campus. One important partner in this was Pride Alliance. They believed that getting SGA’s support will be a crucial victory in vindicating their campaign to protect free speech. When the SGA had a town hall, YAL and Pride announced their concern regarding free speech and made reference to the memorandum. This announcement prompted much interest in SGA. Senators Shannon Conner, Quintin Malone, and I drafted a resolution to present to the SGA Senate. With rounds of amendments, the resolution was ultimately ratified by SGA.
FIRE: How did your group decide that a resolution was the best way to promote change at GGC?
Michael: Although the saying is cliché, SGA is supposed to be the collective voice of the student body. With a resolution, SGA makes it clear to the administration that the student body considers free speech an inherent civil liberty which every member of the college community possesses. Regardless of how radical or reactionary, students should be free to express their opinions. Without the resolution, student activists laboring to make amendments to the speech code for the better may not receive the same level interest, respect, and awareness from administrators as they would with the resolution. Assuming the administration will amend policies accordingly, using a resolution averts student activists having to use other options which would either/both be costly or embarrassing.
FIRE: What was the most difficult part of challenging your school’s policies? The most exciting?
Tiffany: The bureaucracy is unbelievable! Unfortunately, the GGC student government association has no real power to affect policy change at this time. A resolution is, however, a positive step in the right direction.
Travis: The most difficult was the initial response by the administrators to my speech at the SGA Town Hall. I spoke with one administrator directly after the event, and he didn’t seem supportive. He attempted to persuade me to back down or to act as an individual and not as a coalition. I don’t think this was the appropriate response. Then again, they were surprised by my actions and by the fact that there was significant support among the student body for a change in the policy.
The most exciting was the overwhelming support by the student body at the Town Hall and in my one-on-one discussions with students. I also received some support from several professors who had been wanting to see the policy changed themselves.
Michael: The most difficult part for SGA was editing the resolution to be worded in a manner avoiding any vagueness which the administration might exploit to justify why the speech codes already meet SGA’s expectations. When President John "Seijin" Tranberg received an earlier draft of the resolution, he correctly returned it to the Senate in hopes that the Senate will amend the document to be more specific.
Seijin: I was very pleased that our students stood up and worked to improve our free speech policy at GGC. I was completely supportive of the heart and spirit of the effort, but I know that the devil is in the details. As such, I requested more detail in what we were putting forth, and was very pleased with the work and efforts of those who were extensively engaged.
Michael: The resolution is prolix, but the wordiness is necessary to establish what particular language SGA would be satisfied with. Because of how detailed the resolution was, much debate and deliberation occurred in the Senate and Executive Council of SGA; however, the resolution finally received overwhelming support in the Senate and Executive Council.
The most exciting part of this challenge is in the uniqueness of GGC. As a young institution, GGC has more facility to do something which many of the older colleges and universities have difficulty with: establishing an identity. Through challenging the speech codes, SGA and other student activists are calling for a college which identifies itself as a "marketplace of ideas" early on in its history. If GGC was to have policies which fully respect free speech, this would be an accomplishment that no other public or private university, most of which are many decades older than GGC, has achieved in the State of Georgia.
FIRE: What advice do you have for other students who want to promote student rights on their campuses?
Tiffany: Stick to your guns and do NOT back down! College campuses are historically places which promote the freedom of expression guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Travis: My advice would be to be persistent in your actions, and to be creative in your methods. Find out all the avenues that students have for changing policy, and use them to your benefit. If those avenues are exhausted, do something more public and drastic such as press releases, events to raise awareness of campus free speech, etc. Above all else, don’t give in or give up, and don’t take "no" for an answer.
Michael: We want student advocates to remember how free speech is a necessary yet insufficient asset. It is necessary as it empowers students by giving them the ability to not fear retaliation from the institution for their advocacy; however, it is insufficient insomuch as all the times students fail to exercise their free speech are wasted opportunities to make a difference and provoke discussion. If students want to see change on campus, then students need to take the initiative to vocalize their beliefs. Being silent in the face of an injustice is unacceptable for a student activist.
FIRE: In 5 years, what is your hope for the state of free speech at GGC?
Tiffany: I would love for the "Free Speech Policy" to be similar to the one the University of Cincinnati now has.
Travis: I hope that the policy will be completely revamped to make ALL of the GGC campus a free speech zone.
Michael: We hope for a campus with an administration which fully respects and appreciates the freedom of speech and student activism. Regardless of religious, ideological, or political beliefs, we want to see GGC with so many kinds of voices advocating for what they believe in. When there is debate and discussion, students learn to reflect on what they believe and to articulate those beliefs in situations where someone else may not agree with them.
Michael Christian is a senior at GGC from Georgia studying political science.
Travis Jones is a junior at GGC from Georgia studying biochemistry.
Tiffany McCarty is senior at GGC from Kentucky studying American history.
Seijin Tranbert is a senior at GGC from Georgia studying political science.