Halleran, Ambler create First Amendment ad hoc committee to discuss freedom of speech

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Provost Michael Halleran announced the creation of this ad hoc committee at a Board of Visitors meeting Nov. 14. SARAH SMITH / THE FLAT HAT

When the College of William and Mary’s Board of Visitors met before Thanksgiving break, one topic on the agenda was the creation of an ad hoc committee on the First Amendment. Provost Michael Halleran announced the creation of this committee Nov. 14. According to Halleran, this committee was designed to foster a space for discussions about the First Amendment and how it impacts students and faculty. 

Halleran, along with Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06, sent a memorandum to select faculty, staff and administrators, explaining the purpose of the committee and what prompted its creation. 

“Freedom of speech and other First Amendment rights (for example, assembly and association) are foundational to the pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas that define universities and colleges,” Halleran and Ambler wrote in the memorandum. “… But freedom of speech and other First Amendment rights are neither absolute nor unproblematic. Our country’s history has seen an evolution in how we interpret, value and regulate rights to speak, assemble, publish information, and petition government. Not all communications are protected by the free speech guarantee.” 

In the university context, they said this freedom of expression has created controversies. They wrote in the memorandum that it is now necessary for the College to evaluate what freedom of expression means on campus and what limits to it are acceptable. 

Ambler, who worked with Halleran to create the Ad Hoc Committee on First Amendment Rights on Campus, said that this issue lies at the very heart of the academic enterprise, which is why it is important to her that the committee looks at how faculty conduct their classes and how all campus representatives engage with one another. 

Halleran mentioned to the Board that issues up for discussion include the use of what he terms “explosive” language and issues regarding the recording of faculty lectures. He said that in the past, and at universities across the country, students have recorded lectures and then posted them online, inviting criticism of a professor’s political views.

Currently, recording laws in Virginia abide by “single-party consent” rules, meaning that only one party involved must consent before a recording is made. 

“As the provost said at the Board of Visitors meeting, these are not easy questions or issues, especially on a university campus,” College spokesperson Brian Whitson said in an email. “It’s important that William & Mary be a leader in addressing them.” 

“As the provost said at the Board of Visitors meeting, these are not easy questions or issues, especially on a university campus,” College spokesperson Brian Whitson said in an email. “It’s important that William & Mary be a leader in addressing them.” 

Halleran and Ambler chose Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas and law professor Timothy Zick, who specializes in constitutional and First Amendment law, to chair the Ad Hoc Committee. According to Zick, it is not yet clear what the specific roles of the chairs will be, other than working generally to review all First Amendment-related policies. 

“We will be reviewing First Amendment-related policies, including those relating to use of College facilities, posting, and the scheduling of events,” Zick said in an email. “The Ad Hoc Committee will provide guidance and recommendations concerning these and other policies, with the aim of ensuring that they are consistent with our commitments to First Amendment rights, principles of academic freedom, and interest in fostering an inclusive learning environment.” 

Earlier this semester, the Use of Campus Facilities policy, which designates certain locations as available for spontaneous expression, came into question when two students were placed on academic probation following an unsanctioned meeting held by Students United. Students associated with Students United said that they did not believe their event, which occurred in the Sir Christopher Wren Building Yard, was in violation of the policy because of its expressive intent. 

The Ad Hoc Committee has been charged with reviewing the Use of Campus Facilities policy, assessing the value of developing a protest policy, examining the current posting policy as it relates to free speech rights, considering dual-party consent for recording, considering an institution-wide approach to providing education about the First Amendment and researching best practices related to the use of “explosive” language in the classroom. 

In regard to planning and response, the Ad Hoc Committee has also been charged with considering quick approaches to analyzing campus events, considering an institutional approach to security costs and free speech-related expenses and discussing the potential for a sustainable team that could mobilize to address free speech events. 

After students associated with Students United were placed on academic probation, Student Assembly became involved and sent representatives — Campbell Scheuerman ’20 and Jacob Hill ’19, who serve as the SA undersecretaries of College policy and student rights — to speak with Ambler about the spontaneous expression policy. Since then, SA President Brendan Boylan ’19 has appointed Scheuerman and Hill as the student representatives to the Ad Hoc Committee. 

“In addition, the committee will be involving the campus community at large, perhaps through surveys and/or public forums,” Ambler said in an email. “I strongly encourage students to follow and engage actively with the work of this committee.”