University Senate Affirms Free Speech

October 29, 2001

Concerned that the nearly unanimous support for a military response to the attacks of Sept. 11 could stifle those with opposing views, the University Senate reaffirmed Columbia’s commitment to free speech and open debate.

A student-sponsored resolution, which passed with no votes against and just one abstention, called on members of the Columbia community to “preserve an environment conducive to the free exchange of ideas and the civil discussion of diverse opinions.”

In Friday’s resolution, the Senate stated that “Columbia University is dedicated to the free expression of ideas and open debate as well as the respect for diversity of opinions and beliefs.”

The resolution comes in the wake of several incidents around the country, including some at institutions of higher learning, where those opposing military action were sharply criticized or even censured or fired for expressing their views.

In one widely reported case, a group of professors at the City University of New York were censured after speaking out against the war in a manner that some people viewed as un-American.

Columbia’s administration has made no similar efforts to stifle controversial opinions held by members of the faculty, and backers of the resolution said the administration was less of a target than students themselves. According to Senator Michael Castleman, SEAS ’03, one of the resolution’s primary authors, students who have been active both for and against military action have reported being heckled and intimidated by other students.

In passing the resolution, the Senate did not refer to any specific incidents where students had felt pressured to keep quiet about their views, but the rationale that accompanied the resolution explained that “during recent weeks, some student members of the Columbia community have felt pressure to curtail their opinions of the national response to the Sept. 11 attacks.”

“Yet the continuous practice of free and open discourse produces a cacophonous, vibrant, creative community,” the rationale continued. “This resolution reaffirms open discourse as a prime value in our community and encourages diverse participation in it.”

During the meeting, Castleman likened the resolution to preventive measures the University has taken against anthrax contamination. “Just because there have been no incidents yet with anthrax on campus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to protect ourselves against anthrax,” Castleman
said. “Similarly I feel that this resolution, just because there may not have been direct incidents on campus yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to protect our community.”

But while the resolution ultimately passed overwhelmingly, at least one senator had concerns about the resolution’s goal. “It bothers me that this resolution is continued to be necessary,” Senate alumni representative Carlos MuÒoz said. He said he felt the campus was in fact very open and noted that Arab students had told him they felt comfortable walking on campus in traditional dress, when they often did not when they left campus. “It seems to me the resolution is a sort of admission that we have a problem when maybe we don’t,” MuÒoz said. “Maybe the more appropriate resolution would be one commending the attitude and the atmosphere at Columbia.”

But Senate Student Caucus Chair Roosevelt Montas, who introduced the resolution to the Senate, said there was need for the University to reiterate its support for open debate.

“Columbia University is a tremendously open community, and that’s the very reason why many of us are here,” Montas said. “But there is concern about the increased tension that this is raising.”

“This would be the appropriate time for the University to affirm a value that is close to its heart,” Montas added. Forty-six of the 47 senators present voted at the Senate’s Friday monthly meeting in favor of the resolution.

The Senate also discussed the possibility of holding a hearing to learn more about the issue of graduate student unionization. Montas, whose Student Caucus sponsored the proposal, said he hoped to give students and other community members the chance to learn more about the issue from those involved on both sides.

The format, which he said was not yet determined, would not be adversarial, but would allow for students to hear “considered opinions” on the issue. He pointed out that graduate student unionization would affect the “entire Columbia community in ways we don’t have a good handle on.”

But Senate Parliamentarian and Deputy General Counsel Howard Jacobson raised a concern that could make such a hearing impossible. He said that the Senate, despite its status as a representative body, qualifies technically as “management,” raising the possibility that a Senate hearing could be viewed as interference in the union organizing campaign. Such interference could theoretically raise the possibility of an unfair labor practices charge by the union.

Jacobson said any hearing should therefore not be labeled an official Senate hearing. But Montas said he had not given up the idea of Senate hearings, and pointed out that the Senate’s membership includes graduate students who would be included in the bargaining unit, making it hard to view the Senate as management. He said he believed the Senate, as the only body with representatives from throughout the University, is the right forum for a discussion of the issue.

“I think this is the appropriate place by all logical thought,” Montas said. Executive Vice President for Administration Emily Lloyd addressed the Senate to explain measures taken by the University since Sept. 11. Lloyd explained that the University had taken several security measures, such as closing one of the main gates and more tightly monitoring parking on College Walk, and had also increased security patrols on campus. She said security is working closely with police to ensure the University learns quickly of any threats.

She said there had been 32 suspicious items reported to security since Sept. 11 but that none had proven to be an actual threat. Lloyd said the University was also working to establish an emergency
management center and had arranged with St. Luke’s and New York-Presbyterian hospitals to ensure they would have antibiotics on hand in the case of a serious outbreak of anthrax or another serious biohazard on campus. She also said the University was working to add staff in Counseling and Psychological Services, which has experienced a 20 percent surge in weekday walk-ins and a 50 percent increase on weekends.

“We’re trying to find the right mix of calm and caution,” Lloyd said.

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