As a part of Bates College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day programming, students, staff and members of the community gathered in Pettengill Hall to discuss some of the issues surrounding free speech on college campuses. Ultimately, the intended goal of the meeting was to provide feedback on a “Free Speech Statement of Principles” for the school that will be released in the near future.

The event opened with comments from a panel of faculty members from a variety of departments, lead by Associate Dean of Faculty Margaret Imber. From there, students broke up into small groups to discuss four different free speech-related scenarios and to decide how the planned statement of principles might apply to each one.

According to the panel members, the idea to craft a Statement of Principles came after watching several colleges that have had free speech-related issues, often with planned speakers and student responses to those speakers, draft statements of their own.

While the faculty noted that Bates has not had a similar controversy in recent years, the administration felt that it should create a statement that could be applied to any similar situations, rather than being “reactionary.” According to Nathan Faries, an Asian Studies and Chinese professor who was a member of the panel, releasing a statement was a way for Bates to stake its claim on a national issue.   

“We want to be a part of this discussion,” said Faries.

Most members of the audience who commented agreed in the importance of drafting a Statement of Principles. According to Morgan Baxter ’20, an attendant of the event, the idea of a Statement sent a clear message on how Bates wanted its community to engage.

“Bates wants to build pen discourse built on mutual respect. That was my takeaway,” said Baxter.

While many students appreciated the idea of a written position, some didn’t feel that the sentiments expressed in the words matched the administration’s actions.

One student, Maddy Smith ’20, felt that the school’s policy on protests, which states that protesters who disrupt class time can be punished and that protesters should coordinate their demonstrations with the school and limit them to certain locations, limited free speech. Smith ended her statement to the panel by connecting the importance of protest to the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

“All these events for MLK Day are the result of activism,” concluded Smith.

While Imber agreed with Smith’s general sentiment, she noted that that it would be difficult for the school to endorse activities that broke up the educational process, as that was something the school valued as much as protest.

Imber also noted that protest could be very effective when breaking the rules because it created “spectacle.”

Following the discussion of protests, the audience was broken into small groups to discuss four hypothetical scenarios involving free speech on a college campus. The scenarios ranged in content from a controversy surrounding a professor’s Twitter account to students who refused to do certain class assignments due to religious beliefs. After about twenty minutes the audience reconvened as one group to discuss their takeaways.

The Free Speech Panel was a part of a larger set of programming sponsored by the school for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Programming began with a morning keynote address by Dr. Na’ilah Suad Nasir and continued throughout the day.