Mary Grace von Thron, Campus Carrier news editor

Berry’s Culture of Belonging Policies Related to Free Speech committee is attempting to balance the importance and values of free speech in an academic environment while creating a welcoming and comfortable space for students to share ideas.

Associate professor of government and head of the committee, Michael Bailey, said that discussion of finding the balance between these two values has been a large focus of the committee.

“What we’re trying to embrace are two really important values for the community,” Bailey said. On one hand, we are an academic community that, necessarily, values free speech. At the same time, we are a community, and this is where people have their home and people want to feel comfortable and welcome here and we don’t to use speech as a cudgel to have some people feel excluded.”

Senior Rebekah Rowe, another member of the committee, said that the process of drafting policies related to free speech consisted of having hard conversations concerning the rights of students and what would be considered as offensive.

“We were careful with eliminating the use of vague terms that don’t actually say or mean anything,” Rowe said.

Rowe said she was very adamant about clearly defining terms and making sure students know exactly where Berry stands on issues related to speech is very clear. 

Since Berry is a private college, the guidelines regarding free speech can be different when compared to public universities, such as the University of Georgia. Brian Carroll, chair of the department of communication, said that when it comes to the first amendment, public universities and private universities have different obligations.

“The presumption at a public university is that because it is a public university it is a public square by definition,” Carroll said. “It’s the people’s university.”

However, for private universities such as Berry, which is owned by their Board of Trustees, the presumption is that Berry is private property.

“By stepping onto private property, one is expected to yield certain rights,” Carroll said. “Now, that’s not to say when you step on the campus of Berry College, you no longer have constitutional rights. And that’s what I think this effort to articulate a speech code is intending to do is to clarify that here, even on private property, this is our understanding of what free expression looks like.”

Carroll also said that in some instances, students and faculty at Berry have more freedom of expression here than students and faculty at public universities, due to the fact that the first amendment prohibits the establishment of religion. This prohibits professors at public universities from discussing their faith in the context of the university.

Bailey also elaborated on the differences of free speech in the private and public sector, specifically when it comes to places of higher education.

“If you are a part of a sectarian Christian college, there may be an oath or a set of dogmatic beliefs that you have to sign on to,” Bailey said.

Rowe hopes that the Berry administration holds true to the intent of the speech policy.

“This could either be really effective or really ineffective,” Rowe said. “This is the most movement I have ever seen from Berry toward diversity, equity and inclusion. I think with all hands-on board this could work.”

Currently, the committee has ten members and consists of students, staff and faculty.

Bailey said that he and other senior members on the committee have strived to make the students on the committee feel welcome to speaking their opinion openly.

“There’s a tendency for the old people in the room to kind of dominate the conversation,” Bailey said. “There was a little bit of hesitation to do so, but from my angle, in my committee, there was a real effort by the administrators and faculties to openly invite the two students [on the committee] to be candid, to be open and to speak.”

According to Bailey, members of the committee don’t always agree with each other. Some members of the committee are more concerned about protecting free speech at Berry, while some feel that the committee should focus on defining what is and is not acceptable when it comes to free speech.

Bailey believes that disagreement in the committee is healthy.

“We don’t always agree,” Bailey said. “The faculty don’t agree with each other. And in my opinion, that’s not a sign of ill health. That’s a sign that you have ten reasonable, intelligent, thoughtful, free people, and the default position for thoughtful, reasonable people on matters of social mores is disagreement, not agreement.”

Students with any questions or concerns dealing with the Culture of Belonging committee on Policies Related to Free Speech can email belonging@berry.edu.

Next week, the Carrier will be publishing the final part of this three-part series on speech policy at Berry, concerning campus community opinions and reactions. Next week the Carrier will also be publishing data resulting from our Campus Freedom of Speech Opinion Survey. Students, faculty and staff can still take the survey, accessible through the Carrier’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Posted by Campus Carrier

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