Core values, freedom of expression and campus safety
September 5, 2020
Dear members of the Mount Holyoke community,
Over the past few days, the College leadership was made aware of a series of ongoing rallies in Western Massachusetts in support of President Trump and “Back the Blue,” a pro-law enforcement group. One such rally is scheduled to be held on September 7th in South Hadley, between the Village Commons and the College. Participants will gather on the public area around the gazebo, which is not owned by the College. This intersection, and the sidewalks along Route 116 in front of the College, have in recent weeks seen regular, peaceful and non-partisan vigils in support of racial justice.
Members of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ+) communities have circulated a petition to voice their legitimate concerns about safety, and the ways in which some political rallies take a position that is oppositional to calls for justice, especially in regard to police brutality. We recognize that groups gathering for rallies may be experienced as a threat to these members of our community, and indeed to other targeted groups and identities. We take this opportunity, then, to reassert our values and priorities as an institution, and our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of all members of our community:
We denounce police brutality, all acts of violence, racism and hatred, and all forms of harm that people experience from words and deeds rooted in divisiveness and bigotry.
We recognize the unique ways that anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric have subjected groups of people to threats of violence, and engender concerns for safety as people organize around these issues.
We issued an Anti-Racism Action Plan last week that we will actualize and prioritize. Our commitment to this is unwavering.
We will ensure our campus remains safe and that students and the wider campus community are fully supported and heard.
The right to peaceful assembly, and indeed to free speech, are protected in the First Amendment, and together with the freedoms of association, petition and the press are what we understand more broadly as freedom of expression. The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) short guide to Freedom of Expression describes the history and underscores the complexity of this issue, and our own statement upholds and extends these rights to all members of the Mount Holyoke community. To defend free speech is to defend the most fundamental and most important of human freedoms, even when, as the ACLU article makes explicit, some views expressed “are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for,” otherwise “no one's liberty will be secure. In that sense, all First Amendment rights are ‘indivisible.’ ”
The College cannot, then, prevent an assembly from being held on town property in proximity to the campus. We fully anticipate that the current political climate will give rise to other events and social media posts representing a range of views, many of them extreme, over which the College has no jurisdiction or control. In difficult moments such as these, we are called upon as an institution to be guided by our values. It is our deeply held conviction that we must identify and address implicit and explicit racism, bias and discrimination on our campus, and denounce all such expressions of hatred and bigotry in our immediate South Hadley community and beyond. Foundational to our values, too, is a commitment to free speech and a belief that we must engage with and advocate for each other on complex issues of identity, place, country of origin, belief systems, religious and faith-based affiliations, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, veteran status, political affiliation and so much more.
These moments, far from dividing us as a community, should remind us all of why we continue to work toward justice here, and why we use our own freedom of speech to express our convictions and to advocate for others, for their freedom and for justice.
Correction: The original letter stated "Those organizing the rally have obtained a permit from the town of South Hadley..." A permit was not required for this event and the letter has been updated. 9/9/20