Driven by Calls for Racial Justice, Faculty Votes to Amend Statement of Academic Freedom

A majority of the faculty voted to approve an amendment to the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom on Dec. 15, 2020. The impetus for the revision came from members of the Black Student Union (BSU) who had appealed to President Biddy Martin at the end of the summer as part of the Integrate Amherst and Reclaim Amherst movements. The amendment, passed with a vote of 137-25, resulted in the following addition to the statement first published in May of 2016:

“[The college] may also restrict disparaging or abusive speech (e.g., racial epithets) directed at an individual or group based on their actual or perceived affiliation with a protected class, and for which there is no reasonable academic, educational, or artistic justification.”

The new provision was written by the Committee of Six — a group elected by faculty members to represent their general interests — following a request by President Martin. The Committee of Six sets the agenda for faculty meetings and brings forward motions for the faculty to consider.  The Committee of Six discussed the proposed amendment, consulted with various people, and chose the final language of the proposal.  

Suggestions from the BSU at the end of the spring 2020 semester gave impetus to the amendment process. The revision was proposed in late spring of 2020 as #IntegrateAmherst, a campaign for racial equity at the college, took flight in response to a racist incident in which members of the men’s lacrosse team chanted the N-word at a Black teammate. The addendum sought to address racism on campus and was particularly concerned with questions of racist speech.

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and Chair of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas penned the first Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom in 2015. The statement was then approved by a majority of the faculty in the spring of 2016 following Amherst Uprising and concurrent protests against racism and discrimination at the University of Missouri and Yale in the fall of 2015. The Committee of Six at the time was motivated to create the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom due to the concern that clauses in the college’s faculty handbook and student honor code did not sufficiently express a commitment to academic freedom. The 2016 version of the statement protected microaggressions because the term “microaggressions” was not clearly defined, according to Douglas at the time.  

After the BSU drafted potential revisions to the statement, they then submitted them to the Committee of Six as a matter of formal policy. Martha Umphrey, the Bertrand H. Snell 1894 professor in American government and a member of the Committee of Six, helped shape the second draft.  

“We did a lot of work doing research on policies at other institutions, some of that work the BSU had done, and we did a little bit more. We were looking at what kinds of language was included in other academic freedom statements in other places. This included about 15 colleges — both small and larger institutions. The institutions ranged from Stanford, Columbia, Williams, to the University of Chicago,” said Umphrey.

The Committee of Six then solicited the feedback of faculty. This included two formal faculty meetings devoted to the topic and an informational meeting about the proposed amendments hosted by the Committee of Six. The committee also solicited written feedback from the faculty on its proposal. After four separate instances of consultation with the faculty body in the fall of 2020, the Committee of Six finalized the amendment and presented it at a faculty meeting on Dec. 15. At the end of the discussion, which lasted almost an hour, roughly 80 percent of the faculty voted in favor of the amendment.

Throughout faculty consultation, there was considerable debate over the amendment. Epstein, an ex-officio member of the Committee of Six, was present at all of the committee’s meetings about amending the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom. 

“Some faculty believe that what has been added to the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom was already covered by other Amherst College policies, including the Statement itself, as well as our policies concerning harassment and respect for persons,” she said. “Others believed that the statement should go much further in terms of banning the use of racial epithets.”

Professor of Economics Christopher Kingston, another member of the Committee of Six, mentioned that some faculty members felt that there was no need to amend the statement for racially degrading speech. “There were members of the faculty that felt that our existing policies, which include the Statement of Respect for Persons, were adequate,” he said, “The main point of debate was how best to advance our widely shared goal of creating a more inclusive campus without curtailing academic and artistic freedom of expression.” 

Joelle Crichlow ’22, a senior chair of the BSU, was involved in the amendment as part of the #IntegrateAmherst campaign which began last spring. At the time, she was serving as the junior chair of BSU and played a large role in constructing the organization’s demands. 

“I think the statement is definitely a step in the right direction,” Crichlow said.  “Last spring, BSU was lobbying toward the explicit use of the term ‘hate speech’ within the statement as I, and many others, do believe that speech is a tool that can be used to incite violence (as we saw through former President Trump’s encouragement of insurrection that resulted in the attack on the Capitol).”

Umphrey mentioned that certain  free speech issues related to speech act theory were raised among the faculty. Some faculty members felt that there was no need to amend the statement for racially degrading speech. 

“Some faculty argued that things like racist epithets and other kinds of abusive language are really more actions than speech,” she said. “According to that view, they [instances of abusive language] don’t really embody ideas and should have been handled by amending other parts of fact of college policy academic freedom.”

“There were members of the faculty that felt that our existing policies, which include the Statement of Respect for Persons, were adequate,” Kingston added. “The main point of debate was how best to advance our widely shared goal of creating a more inclusive campus without curtailing academic and artistic freedom of expression.” 

There were also faculty members who agreed with the sentiment behind the statement but felt that its wording was ambiguous. Nishiten Shah, a professor of philosophy who taught an advanced seminar on free speech issues in the fall, shared the aim of prohibiting racial and other slurs on Amherst’s campus. Though he appreciated the substantial efforts of faculty, he thinks that the way it is written makes it ambiguous. “On at least one reasonable interpretation,” he said, “the amendment affords fewer protections against slurs than the original statement. I think we could have arrived at a clearer statement that unambiguously fulfills our anti-racist aims if there had been more opportunities to discuss the issues involved.” 

Rebecca Awuah ’23 also thought that the amendment had good intentions but failed to accomplish its intended aim. “I think it was a great idea personally, but I think the statement should be altered,” she said. “It shouldn’t say ‘may’; it should say ‘will,’ because in my eyes the institution shouldn’t be wishy-washy about whether or not they will step in when racist speech and actions are taking place.”

Crichlow shared the sentiment about the wording of the amendment: “I think the use of ‘disparaging’ and ‘abusive’ again is a step in the right direction; however, disparaging to me holds a similar tone to condescending, which in the case of racial epithets is simply inaccurate,” she said. “Racial epithets most often are used to indicate perceived superiority and hate. I understand the importance of such language in many important historical texts.”

Other students recognize that the statement is a move in the right direction but not a guarantee for change. “I think that this shows good intentions on behalf of the college, but I really don’t know how effective it will be,” Isabelle Kim ’23 said. “It’s great that the administration is realizing how much racism is still around on campus, yet I don’t think this is enough to combat the racism that so many people experience on an everyday basis, such as stereotyping or microaggressions.”

Still, many faculty and students were satisfied with the amendment. “Amherst has no space for intentionally malicious discriminatory comments, especially as it is a community where we learn from each others’ experiences and differences; racist speech shows the opposite of this Amherst learning experience,” said Tim Song ’22. “I’m in full support of the college amending the Statement of Academic Freedom!”

“The amendment represents a reasonable compromise between academic and expressive freedom and the desire to protect our community from the harm that speech can cause,” Epstein added.