Chopp’s Letter to FIRE Doubles Down on Censorship

Defending the fraternities and soft porn isn’t exactly our cause of choice. But the Phi Psi flyer incident has raised serious threats to free speech and due process at Swarthmore. And the right to free speech and due process are most always worth defending—especially when a college administration displays as much hypocrisy as ours has.

The latest development comes with President Rebecca Chopp’s Oct. 21 response to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). In a formal letter, dated Oct. 15, FIRE had expressed concern that the administration bypassed our normal judiciary process while still halting Phi Psi’s recruitment efforts and forcing its members into Title IX workshops. FIRE is a nonprofit that works to protect academic freedom and legal equity on college campuses. To their letter, Chopp replied:

The College did not discipline Phi Psi for their distribution of the publication in question…Rather, in the context of what many of our community members viewed as an example of the fraternity’s lack of understanding about how such images may be perceived by the community—and women in particular—the College believed it appropriate that the fraternity learn more about the College’s policies and procedures concerning sexual harassment and sexual violence.

President Chopp thinks she’s refuting FIRE. Sadly, her statement actually reinforces their central concern: Despite no documented violation of policies, Phi Psi members  find themselves in reeducation classes.

President Chopp portrays these workshops as a community-wide endeavor. If that’s the case, why aren’t the organizers behind, say Genderf**k and Crunkfest, also being enrolled in a Title IX refresher course? If the administration was looking to refocus campus attitudes toward sex and gender, they could have offered voluntary training for all students.  Many Phi Psi members, eager to revive their reputation on campus, probably would have attended. And if the administration was so concerned about Greek culture in general, deans could have arranged such workshops at the beginning of the semester and invited members of Swarthmore’s Delta Upsilon fraternity to also sign up.

Notably, DU hasn’t had its pledge season halted. What’s the difference between Phi Psi and DU? One frat issued a flyer that, by our President’s own admission, didn’t break any College rules, and one frat didn’t. Got it?

In response to FIRE’s criticism of Dean Liliana Rodriquez’s Oct. 8 letter, which mandated that Phi Psi members display a “genuine appreciation” for the content of the reeducation workshops, President Chopp claims that the fraternity members can still maintain full “freedom of conscience.” The administration’s definition of freedom must be different than ours.

President Chopp’s central justification for the Title IX workshops is that the distasteful flyers evinced a “lack of understanding about how such images may be perceived by the community.” If the administration is going to round you up for a “lack of understanding,” even if your ignorance didn’t break any policies, then are your thoughts really free? More concerning, this standard makes any campus speech subject to how it may “be perceived.” That’s not how free speech works in a liberal society.

President Chopp next points FIRE to Phi Psi’s “Open Letter to the Community,” which appeared in last week’s Phoenix.  Zach Schaffer ’14 and Ishaan Sutaria ’14, the respective President and Vice President of Phi Psi, wrote, “The images and the messages they send are degrading to women and offensive to the campus community at large, and for that we sincerely apologize to all.”

The letter is well written and seems genuine. Hats off to Phi Psi for the apology. But that doesn’t change the fact that the apology was issued after disciplinary action was underway. It is a coerced apology. We have no reason to believe that Phi Psi’s leadership wasn’t already in the process of issuing an independent mea culpa, but it’s highly dubious for President Chopp to cite a letter that her administration solicited as evidence that the administration’s actions are legitimate and endorsed by fraternity leadership.

Finally, in regards to FIRE’s alarm that the College was also punishing Phi Psi for unsubstantiated party violations and mistreatment of Party Associates (PAs), Chopp confirms that “the temporary suspension of hosting social events and other privileges was linked to these concerns.” But, as we’ve noted before, the College has an obligation to present evidence for these accusations and offer Phi Psi a chance to defend themselves.

In our conversations with members of Phi Psi, they complained that no such evidence has been offered, confirming our suspicions that the PA accusation was mostly tacked-on to Dean Rodriquez’s letter to lend some credence to the administration’s censorship campaign. In fact, some brothers say that Dean Rodriquez assured them, behind closed doors, that nothing would actually come of the PA allegations. Apparently Rodriquez admitted to feeling bad for even including those accusations in the letter.

Suddenly, the administration seems to be hiding behind the PA claim as a way of dodging FIRE’s scrutiny. Given this, the administration is guilty of not only censorship, but duplicity. The adjective Orwellian gets overused. But, in this case, it seems accurate.

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