A photo of a Keene State College student that was recently posted to Snapchat has sparked discussions around how to balance free speech and inclusivity on campus.
The image on the photo-messaging app showed a student wearing a sweatshirt that advocated for people who don’t speak English to leave the country, according to Dottie Morris, associate vice president for institutional equity and diversity. The incident was brought up by students earlier this month at a general community meeting facilitated by Morris and President Melinda Treadwell, she said.
“It came up as one of the statements that someone brought up about how important it would be for us to engage in more educational opportunities for people to understand that wearing something like that could be hurtful to other people,” Morris said. “So how do we work together to not cause any kind of pain to one another, be it intentional or unintentional?”
In a statement emailed by a college spokeswoman Thursday, Treadwell emphasized the importance of free speech.
“As an institution of higher education, we value dialogue across difference,” she said. “Keene State is committed to providing an environment that supports an open exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives that are based in mutual respect and create belonging in our community. We have incredibly talented, caring students who are contributing in valuable ways and calling us to demonstrate our values. I am proud of our community and look forward to our work together to deliver on our college’s values.”
Treadwell also commented on the matter during the community meeting, according to a report in The Equinox, Keene State’s student newspaper.
“I am a fierce proponent for free speech, but I don’t tolerate ignorance. Students and faculty need to be educated. Ignorance isn’t an excuse,” she said.
Morris stressed that from her perspective, it’s important to have compassion when working with young people. She said the college took an “affirmative rather than punitive” approach to addressing the issue.
“In talking to the young person who wore the shirt, it was ‘a joke,’ and it’s one of those things that I think having patience and discussions are more productive than public shaming,” Morris said.
According to Morris, residential life staff discussed the photo with students, including the student who wore the sweatshirt. The college typically doesn’t respond to this type of incident as a disciplinary issue, she said.
“... it’s protected under freedom of speech, freedom of expression. So by no means is it a disciplinary action,” she said. “We do, however, because we are an institution of higher learning, feel responsible to let people understand the impact that their behavior or their choices can have on other people.”
Morris noted that difficult discussions like these are happening all over the country, and not just in higher education. She said holding community events where these conversations can happen is part of balancing freedom of speech with making sure Keene State is a welcoming place.
Some students at the community meeting earlier this month advocated for more programming on and discussion of racial issues during orientation and welcome week, Morris said. One idea was to mount a theatrical production on the subject that students would be required to attend, much like the play “No Zebras, No Excuses,” which focuses on sexual violence and is put on at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters for incoming students.
Morris said the college is looking into ways to build on its existing educational programs and resources, as well as raise awareness of those resources, such as an online form students can use to report incidents of bias on campus.
“I’ve already had conversations with the folks who are in charge in orientation. We’re already brainstorming,” Morris said. “We will be pulling some students together to help us craft that out.”