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Empty chairs, tight-lipped officials define launch of free speech discussion series following campus discord

Tanner Nally | Photographer
From left to right, Dean of Students Colette Coleman, Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, the GSEHD director for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and Christy Anthony, the director of Students Rights and Responsibilities, during Thursday’s discussion.

Officials hosted the first segment of a four-part series to address questions about free speech on campus and conflict resolution Thursday, enticing attendees with free food. Three students showed up.

The students, one professor and a handful of GW administrators scooped pasta, salad and sweets from trays of catered food onto their plates before sitting down in a University Student Center room tucked in the back of the third floor. Among empty chairs, the attendees gathered in a small clump around a U-shaped table in the center of the room that pointed toward a screen projecting the University’s free speech policy as an awkward silence overcame the table.

Dean of Students Colette Coleman; Christy Anthony, the director of Students Rights and Responsibilities; and Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, the Graduate School of Education and Human Development director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, asked attendees to discuss the balance between the value and harm of free speech on campus. The event — part of a Division for Student Affairs series titled “Dinner & Dialogue” — will offer training about University policy and discourse over a free meal and follows criticism from community members on the University’s handling of free speech policies after continued student demonstrations about the Israel-Hamas war.

The sparse attendance highlighted the University’s difficulties in reaching students as officials attempt to promote free expression while simultaneously limiting campus discord.

One student pointed to Student for Justice in Palestine’s anti-Israel projections on Gelman Library in October as an example of unacceptable free speech. During the discussion, officials stuck close to University policy and emphasized their inability to express their thoughts on specific events on campus.

“I, in my role as the director, don’t comment on particular incidents, whether I agree or disagree with how they’re characterized because if I agree with some, disagree with others, it looks like my noncomment is a comment,” Anthony said. “So I’m just going to clarify that my noncomment is a noncomment.”

Despite Anthony’s hesitance to comment, University President Ellen Granberg routinely commented on campus events throughout the fall semester. When SJP held a vigil for Palestinians killed by the Israeli military in October, an event where attendees expressed sentiments that some Israeli and Jewish students deemed antisemitic, Granberg condemned the vigil as a “celebration of terrorism” the next day. Following SJP’s projections, Granberg rebuked the students involved in the demonstration and their statements.

“These images included antisemitic phrases that have caused fear and anxiety for many members of our Jewish and broader GW community, and we wholly denounce this type of conduct,” Granberg’s October statement read.

Coleman said the series will support Granberg’s October initiative to “enhance the ability of our community to constructively engage across what are difficult and complex issues.” On Friday, Grandberg unveiled a three-part plan to cultivate “productive” conversations after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war and said officials will review GW’s free speech and conduct policies in the “coming months.” Granberg said the University’s current free speech regulations are not “harmonized” at a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month.

Officials created the series in response to student feedback and conversations with members of DSA staff last semester, Coleman said. But Coleman declined to say whether the new series is a direct response to the conflict in the Gaza Strip and the campus discourse that has followed.

“The Division for Student Affairs is creating events and activities throughout the spring semester that will offer opportunities for connection and education, harness the expertise found in our GW community, and highlight the support resources available,” Coleman said in an email. “The Dinner & Dialogue Series is one such initiative that will offer training and discussion on a variety of timely topics.”

Anthony kicked off the conversation by outlining the University’s policy on free speech, which states that the University is committed to the protection of speech, assembly and lawful protest and grants student organizations and individuals the right to demonstrate on campus as long as the actions are not “disruptive of normal University functions.” She said since GW is a private university, GW is not legally obligated to protect free speech, but they choose to as an institution.

She said the University can restrict the time, place and manner of speech, anything criminal, some hate speech and any discriminatory speech. Anthony then asked attendees to consider how to resolve conflicts between free speech and the harm free speech can cause.

When a student brought up the anti-Israel statements projected onto Gelman Library in October, Anthony said “vandalism,” regardless of the content of a speech, is not protected under GW’s free speech policy.

Another student at the meeting asked officials what the purpose of the new series was and if the University was looking for student feedback to change specific policies regarding free speech. Anthony said she is “always examining and questioning” University policy and trying to improve it, which is why officials want as much student feedback as possible.

Wright said officials understand the “tension” that the Hamas attack Oct. 7 caused on GW’s campus and how subsequent decisions by University officials, like the suspension of SJP in November, added to that tension. While the discussions may not impact GW’s policies, the discussions are aimed at soliciting students’ feedback on officials’ actions and decisions, Wright said.

A different student at the meeting said instead of trying to prevent harm, the University should instead acknowledge that some harm is inevitable when students have a right to free speech.

“We are willing to tolerate as a University some of the risk and harm associated with some forms of what people would call hate speech because we think that that is necessary to providing a free exchange of ideas and critical examination,” Anthony said in response. “We’ve said, however, we do not tolerate discriminatory misconduct that has gone beyond the risk tolerance.”

Anthony concluded the discussion by saying that it is difficult to find absolutes in the issue of free speech since the line of what is harmful is often unclear. She said conversations like those during the event are valuable to get different perspectives on how students view harm and how it should be addressed.

Sarah Felsen, a doctoral student pursuing a degree in neuroscience, said she came to the event because she wanted to hear differing perspectives from other students and help contribute to the conversation surrounding free speech.

“One, this is an important topic, and two, oftentimes when it comes to discussions about fundamental philosophical principles, it’s very rare to get a space where those things are being addressed head-on,” Felsen said. “Because most people assume that their own perspectives on the bedrock assumptions about things like human rights and equity are shared.”

Felsen said she felt more people needed to show up for the conversation to have more impact, noting that just three students attended this event. She said officials should make these conversations more accessible to students. During the session, she suggested that New Student Orientation should have a “How to Disagree with People 101” workshop to help people confront others with different lived experiences than them.

“It’s mainly important because it establishes a common vocabulary,” Felsen said. “But I also think that the people who most need to participate in this discussion — i.e. everyone — did not show up. The somewhat reactive nature of these sorts of things on the administration’s basis makes it hard for people to learn and apply these lessons.”

The next Dinner & Dialogue will take place Monday in the student center at 7 p.m. and will cover conversations about conflict.

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About the Contributor
Fiona Bork, Assistant News Editor
Fiona Bork is a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication from San Diego, California. She is The Hatchet's 2023-2024 assistant news editor for the Student Life beat.
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