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Does Linfield College respect freedom of expression? We asked — and Linfield didn’t answer

By June 30, 2017

In its “Anti-Harassment Protection and Academic Freedom” policy, Linfield College states that “[a]ll members of the college are entitled to use speech to convey disagreement, agreement, inquiry, or commentary in keeping with the principles underlying constitutionally protected free expression.” That’s an admirable commitment from a private university not required to uphold the First Amendment — and it makes Linfield’s recent departure from upholding the values of free speech on its campus all the more disappointing.

On June 9, FIRE wrote to Linfield president Thomas Hellie asking him to clarify the college’s stance on free speech after Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Susan Agre-Kippenhan canceled student group Young Americans for Liberty’s invitation of speaker Dr. Jordan Peterson. The invitation was rescinded at least partially on the basis of Peterson’s public statements.

YAL first invited Peterson to speak at an April 24 event, the second of Linfield’s “Speak Freely Series,” which was co-hosted with the Associated Students of Linfield College. ASLC’s Club Director informed YAL that the following stipulations applied to the event:

Activities Council decided to grant $1,553 for the Jordan Peterson talk and loan $1,500. There are stipulations that Activities Council has required of this event. First of all, being funded by ASLC means that this a Linfield Community only event. Do not publicize to other schools or groups in the area. The second stipulation is that there must be a topic for the talk. It can just simply be “Freedom of Speech and why it is important. A third stipulation is that the contract must be signed by both parties by Monday 4/17. And lastly a signed agreement that the $1,500 will be paid back.

YAL provided Peterson’s signed contract on April 18, one day after ASLC’s deadline. Later that day, Peterson tweeted, “I’m violating some more safe spaces soon: Linfield College, April 24” and linked to student newspaper The Linfield Review’s coverage of his upcoming visit and the controversy resulting from an April 12 free speech ball event hosted by YAL.

On April 19, Agre-Kippenhan sent an email informing the campus community that Linfield would not allow Peterson to speak on campus:

I am writing on behalf of the Linfield Cabinet as officer-in-charge while President Hellie is out. I want to let the Linfield community know that the ASLC (Associated Students of Linfield College) has determined it will not fund Dr. Jordan Peterson’s appearance next week, because stipulations for the event were not met by the requestor, Young Americans for Liberty. Since the authorization parameters were not satisfied, the College will not host the event on April 24th.

Among the stipulations was that the event was to be a private, Linfield College- only event. By his own tweet yesterday, to 107,000 followers, Dr. Peterson indicates he would be “violating more safe spaces soon: Linfield College.” Like- minded supporters from outside our community have responded affirmatively.

Our policy on Anti-Harassment Protection and Academic Freedom states that “anti-harassment policies are not intended to limit the free exchange of opinions or the vigorous debate over ideas.” However, “intimidation, harassment, exploitation, and the use or threat of force are incompatible with the preservation of this freedom.”

Based on the speaker’s own words, this event no longer presents the possibility of academic inquiry within the Linfield community. Our policy is clear: “harassment and intimidation preclude the very possibility for maintaining an atmosphere of academic freedom.” We cannot welcome speakers when the stipulations for their appearances are not met and who intend to violate the safety of our community.

YAL instead held the event at the Falls Event Center on April 24 and allowed the general public to attend.

As FIRE stated in our June 9 letter, while Linfield and ASLC are obviously within their rights to require that student groups abide by deadlines for contracts — which YAL failed to do — administrators may not stymie student groups’ free speech rights because they dislike the expression of their invited speakers.

First, the claim that Peterson’s statement showed “inten[t] to violate the safety of our community” or constituted “the use or threat of force” — rather than an obvious rhetorical device expressing refusal to shy away from controversial speech — is laughable. FIRE’s letter explains:

The Supreme Court has defined “true threats” as “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003) (emphasis added). Peterson’s tweet falls far short of this threshold. By any reasonable reading, his statement about “violat[ing]” a “safe space” reveals an intent to introduce potentially controversial ideas to a community he believes to be unwilling to encounter them, not intent to physically harm that community. Peterson is in no way implying that he intends to use “force” against any member of the Linfield community. To pretend otherwise is disappointingly disingenuous and flatly ignores the obvious hyperbole in his tweet. If Peterson had tweeted that he planned to “blow some minds at Linfield,” would administrators have called in a bomb squad?  

(My colleague Adam Goldstein helpfully points out that Linfield student groups should also ensure that no musicians they invite to campus convey an intent to “melt faces.”)

Agre-Kippenhan’s insinuation that Peterson’s tweet constituted “harassment” is equally ill-informed. Peterson’s tweet could not rise to the level of harassment set forth in Linfield’s own policy, let alone the standard set by Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), in which the Supreme Court set forth the legal standard for student-on-student discriminatory harassment in the educational setting. Linfield’s policy requires that the conduct in question be “so severe or pervasive as to interfere unreasonably with an individual’s work or academic performance or unreasonably create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or academic environment.” One tweet made by a student group’s invited speaker that jokingly references “violating some more safe spaces” cannot reasonably be said to have met this standard.

FIRE also asked Linfield to justify its decision to punish YAL because Peterson “publicized” the event. We wrote:

Agre-Kippenhan’s claim that YAL could not host Peterson because he publicized the event deserves closer scrutiny. Crabtree’s email specified only that YAL could not publicize the event to other schools or groups; it did not imply that YAL would be expected to stop Peterson from publicizing his presence there. Additionally, Agre-Kippenhan’s statement that Peterson’s “[l]ike-minded supporters from outside our community have responded affirmatively” to his tweet implies that YAL—and potentially other student groups—will be held accountable and punished for speech it did not engage in or encourage. This is flatly unfair.

Indeed, Peterson’s tweet is not the only source from which one could learn about his planned visit to Linfield. The Linfield Review wrote about the event as well, and the article is available to anyone via the internet. If Peterson’s supporters had instead commented on the article expressing interest in attending the event, would Linfield ban YAL from hosting the event? Of course not. A student group should not be punished for the expression of others. The only way student groups at Linfield can ensure no one outside the campus community learns of private events is to never plan them in the first place.

Finally, recent reports about the events that transpired in response to YAL’s April 12 “free speech ball” event raise additional concerns. According to Linfield’s YAL chapter, administrators called in every group member to ask which one of them had drawn “Pepe,” a cartoon frog often associated with “alt-right” groups, on the free speech ball. Upon discovering the guilty student, administrators reportedly required him or her to write an essay about the incident. As in the case of the canceled Peterson speech, this is not the conduct of a university committed to “the principles underlying constitutionally protected free expression.”

When colleges promise to respect students’ expressive rights, we expect them to honor those commitments. Linfield’s treatment of YAL and decision to ignore our questions suggest those commitments are on shaky ground, if they still exist at all.