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FIRE to Mount Holyoke College: Students, faculty can’t be forced to make land acknowledgements

Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts

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Mount Holyoke College's land acknowledgement policy became mandatory to recite at campus events starting in September of last year. 

Mount Holyoke College is requiring students and faculty to begin all events, on- and off-campus, by reciting certain personal beliefs in the form of a land acknowledgement. While FIRE takes no position on the use of land acknowledgements, we do have a problem when colleges force people to say things they don’t actually believe. That appears to be what’s happening at Mount Holyoke.

Clocking in at 132 words, and written in the first-person perspective (“we”), MHC’s land acknowledgement requires the speaker to parrot the institution’s sentiments when reading the following script aloud: 

Mount Holyoke College begins each event in the life of the College by acknowledging that those of us in Western Massachusetts are occupying the ancestral land of the Nonotuck people.

We also acknowledge the neighboring Indigenous nations: the Nipmuc and the Wampanoag to the East, the Mohegan and Pequot to the South, the Mohican to the West and the Abenaki to the North. We encourage every member of our community to learn about the original inhabitants of the land where they reside. The impact of settler colonization contributed to the displacement, removal and attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples.

This land acknowledgement seeks to verbalize Mount Holyoke’s commitment to engage in shared responsibility as part of our collective humanity. We urge everyone to participate in action steps identified by Indigenous community based organizations.

Opening college-affiliated events with this pledge became mandatory in September of last year, when MHC implemented its land acknowledgement policy

Policies that require faculty and students to personally endorse ideas they might not believe run afoul of MHC’s repeated and unambiguous promises that it protects free expression.

Land acknowledgement statements have become a popular way for universities and colleges to formally recognize Indigenous ties to land now occupied by the institution. However, policies that require faculty and students to personally endorse ideas they might not believe run afoul of MHC’s repeated and unambiguous promises that it protects free expression. Free expression entails not just the right to speak, but the right not to speak.

MHC’s Statement on Free Inquiry and Expression, Statement of Community, and Guidelines for Community Responsibility make it triple-clear that MHC “believes in the right, indeed the necessity, of free inquiry and expression for every member of the college community” and confirm “[t]he citizen’s right to free speech, free movement, free association, peaceful assembly, and orderly protest extends to every member of the College.” 

While some event hosts might agree with the sentiments behind or expressly included in the college’s official statement of beliefs, MHC cannot force anyone to personally adopt or declare allegiance to the college’s viewpoint. If MHC wants event hosts to address historical land ownership issues during their programs, it may certainly encourage them to do so, and even suggest language they can adopt and/or modify. But it can’t put words, well-meaning or not, into students’ and faculty members’ mouths.

On Oct. 6, FIRE sent a letter to MHC urging it to eliminate the mandate that event hosts open their programs with the college’s prescribed land acknowledgement statement, and to uphold its promise of ensuring all students and faculty the freedom to express their true perspectives.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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