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Update on Campus Speech Issues

Update on Campus Speech Issues

December 22, 2006

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

Now that final exams have concluded, I would like to bring everyone up to date on what we have done to respond to the October 4 student event featuring speakers from the Minuteman Project. At the time, I said that the disruption of that event constituted a serious breach of faith against an academic community built on the freedom to think, speak, debate, and disagree.

Since then, we have taken a number of steps to enforce our University Rules of Conduct with respect to the individuals involved and to ensure more broadly that everyone at Columbia understands and appreciates the essential ethos of tolerance on this campus.

First, Provost Alan Brinkley, Deans Austin Quigley and Peter Awn, Deans of Students Chris Colombo and Mary McGee, Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, and I immediately began an extensive series of meetings with student leaders and student groups across campus to discuss these matters. From these conversations with students, including members of the student councils, the Student Governing Board, and other organizations (as well as talking with students in my undergraduate class on free speech and press), I am heartened by how our students have themselves risen to articulate and protect the tradition of free speech on campus.

The Columbia Daily Spectator eloquently stated the case in its October 6 editorial “When Protest Fails,” saying: “Free speech requires an environment of respect, and even a disrespectful speaker does not exempt students from that responsibility.”

On October 8, the Student Caucus, composed of elected representatives from every undergraduate and graduate school at Columbia, unanimously passed a resolution stating, “the Student Body of Columbia University has a right to invite speakers with varied points of view to campus, and it is unacceptable within our community, to take away someone else's right to express their opinions and viewpoints… The Student Affairs Caucus stands behind the principles of free speech on campus.” On November 16, they added that “while students have every right to protest a speaker and his or her views, they do not have the right to enter that speaker’s space while speaking--at the podium for example. This is seen as a significant disruption of the speaker’s ability to have his or her say as a guest of the University.” Next year's student orientations will include discussions of the importance of tolerance and will incorporate and reflect this student consensus.

Second, we all understand that student groups should have the widest possible latitude in conducting activities and inviting speakers consistent with their own personal interests and beliefs. But along with the right to have controversial speakers on campus come several responsibilities to the overall University community. In order to better facilitate these rights and responsibilities, we have now reorganized University governance of student organizations. This change should enhance the coordination of student activities and improve the functioning of future student-sponsored events. Additionally, we are implementing event planning and staging procedures to better accommodate events, no matter how controversial they may be. We are, for example, instituting uniform procedures for engaging speakers or groups from outside the University community. This will include an express agreement in advance of any event--between the University, the sponsoring student group, and the speakers or groups--about how the events will be staged and who from outside the University will attend.

Third, there has been a comprehensive review of security at student events. In this case, an examination of the facts shows that Columbia University Public Safety personnel (both in uniform and a number in plainclothes) restored order within a few short moments. Still, it is always a sad day for academic freedom when disruption makes speech impossible. For the future, we will accordingly have additional security measures in place. It is, of course, unfortunate that such protective measures are necessary in a campus environment that depends on openness and human connection. Nevertheless, we must strike the balance between an environment that fosters self-regulation of behavior by young adults and the visible security presence necessary to ensure the safety of all participants at student sponsored events.

Fourth, I said from the outset that the University would pursue an investigation under its Rules of University Conduct. An investigation began the very evening of the disruption, when twenty-four Columbia staff and administrators convened in Lerner Hall in the aftermath of the event. Under established University procedures, any such process is led by University Rules Administrator, Senior Vice Provost Stephen Rittenberg. I also warned in October that we should be careful not to prejudge facts based on media reports, since along with the right of free speech on campus, is also the right to fair process. (I must also point out that it was possible that as president I would serve as the final avenue of appeal for those found to be in violation of University Rules and therefore could not publicly presume facts.)

As a result of that investigation, the University has notified a number of Columbia students that they will be subject to discipline for having violated the Rules of University Conduct. The Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), however, strictly prohibits the University from divulging details of disciplinary proceedings, including the identities of participants. That may feel unsatisfactory to some who would like to see a public announcement of specific punishments, but we must adhere to federal law in these matters of student privacy.

I must also report that several people unaffiliated with Columbia who were found to have jumped on the stage and actively engaged in the physical altercation have been informed that they are no longer permitted on the Columbia campus.

Finally, I want to again thank the many people in the University who have devoted time and energy to repairing the damage our community has sustained and to strengthening our shared academic values. Many students come to Columbia because we are a diverse academic community in the most diverse and global of American cities. Even though this is a place of academic reflection, we have always been a place of lively engagement in the issues of our time and often a crucible for the heated debates that pervade society at large--locally, nationally, and globally. We all know that words can cause pain and discomfort. And every idea poses a risk of action, for good or bad. But what is hard to learn and hard to live by is the single idea that words are the better way in which to work through conflict and danger. This is certainly true for universities, but also for healthy, free societies.

I hope that Columbia is stronger for having recommitted itself to the common right of every member of this community and our guests to speak freely, on even the most difficult and contentious issues of our day. We must now work together to ensure that we always put this core principle into practice.

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger