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Dickinson has Free Speech

Vincent Stephens, Director of The Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity

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For the second year in a row, a member of the Dickinson community has written an editorial to The Dickinsonian to share their perspective on the Bias Education and Response Team (BERT).  I feel compelled to clarify a few things for our community.

I have served as the Coordinator for the Team for the last three years. I am excited the Team’s efforts have resulted in impactful campus wide educational opportunities such as Campus Inclusion Week, Bystander Intervention training and the opportunity for its members to participate in a variety of on and off-campus conversations about the quality of discourse on college campuses.

Our efforts have also encouraged community members to recognize that bias occurs, which is essential to confront if we are to support students who experience bias. Bias tends to go underreported because people fear being ignored or dismissed. We have also made it easier for respondents to recognize reporting options by displaying posters and having a website with a reporting form.

BERT operates separately from student conduct and Public Safety, and is overseen by me, not Dean Bylander. Almost all incidents are resolved through conversation, mediation, or a combination. Many incidents report on property issues and do not involve speech. Further, only one incident in three years has gone through conduct and that was in the form of an informal resolution whose maximum sanction is a warning. Beyond speculation about BERT, I encourage readers to look beyond the temptation to focus on reporting and think critically. Dickinson has community standards that emphasize the value of respect beginning with respect for ideas. None of the editorials published have provided an example of someone being disallowed from expressing ideas in our community or being suppressed. The reason? There is not a single incident of this occurring.

I also encourage readers to interrogate the usage of the term “free speech.” Writers frequently invoke the term to suggest repression yet no one has shared a substantive definition, explored its implications and possibilities or explained why they presume “free speech” differs from speech that is thoughtful and inclusive. It does not have to be.

We as a community must aim for a higher standard than mere “free speech” because there is great potential for enlightened, productive and informed speech. Further, we need to consider the value of not merely reciting “free speech” as a mantra focused on what is said, but to encourage a culture where we consider what is heard and experienced. We must encourage a culture of dialoging and listening. Words matter and no communicative act is complete without equal attention to how what we say and do affects our community.

Finally, it is ironic that “free speech” advocates, locally and beyond, frequently discuss the importance of a multiplicity of ideas and civil discourse. During my time at Dickinson, the writers of editorial pieces on free speech have never reached out to me or any member of my team to learn more about BERT. If there are community members who have concerns about their ability to express themselves, I encourage them to initiate a dialogue. This effort requires specificity and good faith from all parties. I am confident the members of BERT would welcome the opportunity for this kind of engagement.

College is a learning laboratory and there are bound to be occasional tensions and conflicts. Few rise to the occasion of bias incidents, but when they do, we have an ethical obligation to explore them and work to resolve situations to ensure an equitable learning environment for all students. BERT has achieved great success providing educational opportunities through public programming as well as efforts to work with students individually and privately to resolve conflicts. We do not always live in a national culture that is willing to recognize and respond to harm, but we must continue to aspire to acknowledge that what we say is vital to how we live. As the author Timothy B. Tyson has noted, “If there is to be reconciliation, first there must be truth.”

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Dickinson has Free Speech