SLU Working Group to approve campus speakers

As of January 2017, Saint Louis University President Dr. Pestello implemented the foundations of the SLU Working Group – an assemblage seeking to address what categorizes hate speech; this will include what the community and SLU identify as moral and political criteria for public speakers, as well as how to “respectfully disagree” with an opposing viewpoint.

Charged with reviewing current policies and practices, the newly-formed working group was tasked to collect campus input and analyze similar student speech, expression, and civility codes from various Jesuit and Catholic institutions with the goal of forming its own preamble by the end of the 2016-2017 term. Co-chair and current undergraduate student Denish Jaswal explained that while the deadline was aggressive, “it was apparent that there was a need to revisit the free speech policies that were on our campus, especially regarding the events with Allen West and protests.”

In designing and carrying out this goal, the working group, along with its dialogue groups, considered components which advocated for an effective policy to govern speakers and expression on campus; such elements included context for the policy, the content which required addressing, the roles and responsibilities of the students, faculty and administrators in enacting the recommended policies, and the appropriate processes for annunciating and administering such procedures.

“What the working group is trying to figure out is what campus free speech, expression and civility are and what they mean in regards to the Jesuit mission, and how we can work through our commitments to this mission by exploring and being intellectually curious in all avenues,” Jaswal said. “We also want to gather some sense of the Catholic moral mission – these standpoints are not in opposition all the time but, when they are, we are trying to work out how these oppositions factor into our free speech, expression and civility on campus.”

In his letter explaining the purpose of the working group, Pestello addressed one of the goals of a Jesuit institution as to “[discovering] truth [to be] contingent upon our willingness to allow vigorous discussion of differing or contrary ideas.” Eradication of closed doors and invitation to a variety of faith traditions, sexual orientations and political ideals is a primary stronghold within the Working Group.

Jaswal alluded to the inconsistency to which guest speakers were allowed on campus to deliver their messages on behalf of the student body and faculty: “We want to discuss who we can let in under larger issues, such that which align with the Catholic church or that which are more moral topics, such as allowing speakers to come and talk about abortion. We want to elicit feedback from students on what is allowed to be talked about – whether it’s abortion, or if it’s not the place because we are a Jesuit university.”

There are three phases within the implementation of the working group: initial information gathering and research, analysis and recommendations and policy development. Currently, phase one is underway, but approaching the issue of “respectful discourse” and what it entails will be formulated within phase two.

“We have to first determine what types of speech we want on campus, and if there are any that are disallowed, figure out why they are disallowed,” Jaswal elaborated. “From there, we formulate how we will respond to unplanned events.”

In succession to defining the document, which will expand on who is to be allowed on campus to speak and under what conditions various topics should be discoursed, Jaswal emphasized the flexibility of the statements, susceptible to change based on the campus’s decision.

“There needs to eventually be an appeals process built in, so it is not the end-all, be-all,” Jaswal said. “That kind of system is impervious to change, and change is necessary for progress.”