We like to say at FIRE that a great outcome of controversial speech is more speech. And that’s just what Pomona College is up to.
In early November, the Pomona Student Union (PSU) organized an immigration debate between Jacob Hornberger, founder of the Future of Freedom Foundation, and Marvin Stewart, president of the Minuteman Project, Inc. PSU president Halsey Jakle told The Student Life News that the organizers intentionally chose speakers with unpopular views with the goal of stimulating discussion and raising campus awareness of the issues involved.
That’s just what happened. Following the event, which proceeded smoothly until some protesters disrupted the question-and-answer period by chanting, further discussion on the issue was led on November 12 by Pomona professor Fernando Lozano and by student Katie Putnam on November 14.
Then, on November 17, Pomona president David Oxtoby (a man I know and respect) requested that the Executive Committee of the Faculty lead a discussion of what to do in the case of controversial events. Explicitly on the table is Pomona’s policy about intervening to cancel events when there is “a broad consensus that the message falls under commonly understood definitions of ‘hate speech.’” As his letter to the Pomona community stated,
Faculty, students, and staff have raised real and appropriate questions about the limits to free speech on our campus and about the kinds of expression that should be defined as “hate speech.” I welcome discussion of these issues. It is the current policy of the college that we would not intervene to cancel an event sponsored by a campus department, program, or organization unless there was a demonstrable threat to the physical safety of members of our community or a broad consensus that the message falls under commonly understood definitions of “hate speech.”
FIRE wrote President Oxtoby on November 29 about the possible further restrictions on free speech at Pomona. We reminded him of Pomona’s stated commitment to free speechin the Student Handbook, his own ringing endorsement of free speech in a convocation address, and the endorsement of free speech by Pomona Board of Trustees member John Payton in a commencement address.
In response, President Oxtoby wrote FIRE on December 10, again reaffirming Pomona’s traditions of free speech, free inquiry, and academic freedom.
It is now up to the Executive Committee of the Faculty to take the next step. Maybe free speech will be curtailed—as the “hate speech” policy already seems to do—or maybe the committee will again reaffirm Pomona’s historic commitments.
Of course, FIRE has no interest in a university placing prior restraint on discussions of university policy. FIRE would object, however, to any outcome of such discussions that would chill or restrict the right to freedom of speech enjoyed by members of the Pomona community and their guests. As destructive as “hate speech” might seem to the values expressed by a broad consensus of persons at Pomona, even this speech is and must be protected under the First Amendment, which Pomona, even though it is a private college, regards very highly. Besides, relying on a broad-consensus standard, as stated in President Oxtoby’s November 17 letter, clearly marginalizes the minority view, which is particularly endangered in the case of controversial speech. And it is hardly practical to conduct a referendum of the entire college community on such matters.
I hope that the Faculty Executive Committee discussions regarding these matters are characterized by Pomona’s best free speech traditions and that these discussions lead to a reaffirmation, both in words and in policy, of the principles on which President Oxtoby and I largely agree.