President Chopp, Free Speech and More MJ Rulebreaking

At long last discovering the Constitution, President Chopp took to the Daily Gazette on Oct. 1 to explain what falls within the bounds of academic freedom and dissent. Referencing Mountain Justice’s Sept. 26 protest at yet another Board meeting, President Chopp writes in her Letter to the Editor:

As an academic community we must support a multiplicity of views because knowledge often advances—and learning most certainly increases—in the clash and connection between different ideas. Academic freedom also preserves the nature of Swarthmore as a diverse community composed of individuals with different ideas about how to live together. To advance knowledge and learning as well as to preserve our diverse community, we need to protect the right of others to speak and conduct their work even as we demand our right to speak and conduct our own work. So long as the dissent is expressed in ways that do not violate the rights of others in this community, it will be fully respected and supported.

Here at the Swarthmore Independent, we are appreciative of President Chopp’s focus on the fundamental principles of the First Amendment. Peaceful demonstrations are a vital component of academic and civil engagement. For too long, Swarthmore has been wishy-washy on the core tenants of free speech and a respect for others’ right to expression, especially given MJ’s history of aggressive and silencing tactics.

But the fact that the Board considered exiting their Sept. 28 meeting from Kohlberg’s loading dock in order to circumvent the hostile protestors suggests that MJ’s tactics amounted to more than your run-of-the-mill Quaker protest.

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President Chopp’s letter appears to be a follow up to her campus-wide Sept. 30 email, in which she seems so eager to strike a judicious tone that she confuses militancy and free speech. In that memo, she writes, “We support MJ’s right to peacefully demonstrate, just as we will vigorously support the right of any member of this community to express dissent from decisions made.”

President Chopp’s email directs students to the College’s official policies on Academic Freedom and Responsibility to explain her rationale. She highlights her own contradictions. According to the Handbook:

Expressions of dissent are expected in any living and learning community, but this expression must not interfere with normal College business. It is a violation of the norms of this academic community for anyone to prevent the conduct of College business, including lectures, meetings, events (such as admissions tours or job interviews), ceremonies, or other necessary business and community functions. Protests are permissible, except in the following locations: classrooms, offices, libraries, dining halls (including cafes), Worth Health Center, residence hall rooms, and lecture halls, so as to ensure that the normal work, residential experiences, and services of the College can continue. Students who disrupt the functions of the College, including violating the rights of community members and invited speakers to speak, may be subjected to the judicial process.

Surely MJ’s efforts to disrupt a closed-door Board meeting of alumni who convene just four times a year qualifies as an interference with “official business.” Indeed, the Board’s decision to lock the doors of the Scheuer Room, where they were assembled, suggests the Board’s own perception that MJ was intent on disorder.  Sure enough, MJ’s Facebook page advertises their goal to “occupy the board meeting.”

President Chopp’s choice to cite the Swarthmore Handbook further underscores MJ’s rule-breaking at the May 4 Board meeting, which was an official gathering on behalf of community business and took place in a classroom—not that the administration tried to stop them.

Prior to President Chopp’s letter, we had every reason to believe that MJ would continue overriding and intimidating Swarthmore students and faculty who hold alternative points of view. Now there’s been a shift. President Chopp may start enforcing her own policies.

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