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Faculty endorses free speech resolution

Kenyon faculty strengthened protections for free speech in the classroom during the 2017-2018 school year with a document called “Faculty Resolution of Freedom of Expression for Faculty and Students,” dated March 23.

This resolution, which the faculty unanimously endorsed at a recent faculty meeting, states that the freedom to express different opinions and ask questions, even ones that “most members of the College may consider mistaken, dangerous, or even despicable,” is vital to academic discourse. It also asserts that students should learn from and challenge those viewpoints instead of having the College provide a shield.

Assistant Professor of English Rosemary O’Neill is one of the faculty members who drafted the document, along with Professor of Mathematics and Faculty Chair Carol Schumacher, Robert A. Oden, Jr. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, Harry M. Clor Associate Professor of Political Science David Leibowitz and Assistant Professor of History Anton Matytsin.

“I feel like Kenyon students don’t fully understand free speech or the implications of free speech,” O’Neill said. “We, as professors, assume that students understand how the First Amendment works and the principles behind having free expression, but professors told me that students don’t fully understand.”

This resolution was inspired by similar documents from the University of Chicago and Denison University. The College also had an attorney from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that advocates for free speech on campuses, review Kenyon’s policy on free speech.

FIRE gave Kenyon a red-light rating, meaning that at least one of the school’s policies “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” 

FIRE gave this rating, which 58.6 percent of schools nationwide also received, based on a statement in the student handbook which states that “any behavior … which offends the sensibilities of others (whether students, faculty members, or visitors) … will result in disciplinary action. Kenyon students are required at all times to show due respect and courtesy; and vulgar behavior, obscene language, or disorderly conduct are not tolerated.” This statement was adopted in 1964 and revised in 1972; both Decatur and O’Neill believe that it should be updated.

The resolution has been brought to Campus Senate, who will take it into consideration as they work to modernize the Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, according to Decatur.

“Hopefully this can be a guideline for conversations that can happen next year about places where our policies might be inconsistent,” Decatur said.

The resolution has not been formally released.