Handling of **Liberated Raises Questions About Free Speech on Campus

Handling of **Liberated Raises Questions About Free Speech on Campus

The Student Life Department’s attempt to call off **Liberated, Wednesday’s counter event to Ben Shapiro—in the midst of the guest lecturer coming to talk about freedom of speech, no less—raises important questions about how the University prioritizes the speech of different groups on campus. The question of who can say what, when, and where, is inherently political, as is the answer that is given. The allocation of permission to make noise is a decision that can’t be overlooked, as there is always more than meets the eye.


**Liberated is an event that was born in The Club: a Johnston seminar that explores the ways in which minority communities have historically occupied dance clubs as a place of celebration and refuge, especially during times of fierce oppression. The initial idea came from University of Redlands senior, Grace Easterby, who saw the arrival of right-wing celebrity Ben Shapiro on campus as an opportunity to host a counter event that would provide a space for open political dialogue.


“This is a counter event, a congruent event, that this is combatting speech with more speech,” said Easterby. “Which is ideally what you want, rather than attempting to shut out, or drown out, the event that was being put on in the chapel.”


Easterby brought the idea to the seminar where her fellow classmates rallied behind it. She then began planning the event.


“I’m certainly supportive of students using Johnston seminars to do whatever work that they think that they should do,” said professor Tim Seiber, who is teaching the seminar.


On the morning of March 6, Easterby and Julie Townsend, the director of the Johnston Center, received separate emails from Amy Metcalf, the Assistant Director of Event Services, and Jared Rodrigues, the Director of Student Conduct. Both requested a sit-down meeting regarding the event, specifically on the issues of space, security and noise. Professor Seiber was added to this email conversation, and invited to the meetings.


The meeting took place the next morning, where Metcalf and Rodrigues brought up Student Life’s concerns with the event. They asserted that the space had not been reserved using 25Live, the University’s system for registering events and allocating space. Furthermore, it was revealed that the quad space and all the lawns surrounding it had been previously reserved by Public Safety for the duration of Shapiro’s event. According to Valerie Sponheim, the Assistant Dean of Student Life, this is not a normal course of action for events held in the chapel, but was taken as a precaution due to security concerns. Finally, it was shared that as a common practice, Student Life declines event requests that overlap with pre-existing paid speaker events.


That being said, there is no formal University policy prohibiting events from occurring simultaneously.


Throughout the meeting, the issue of noise was repeatedly raised.


“They didn’t have a problem with the teach in, they had a problem with the house music being played at the same time as Ben [was speaking],” said Easterby.


Easterby and Seiber assured Student Life that the event would keep the noise low enough so as to be inaudible within the chapel. Even so, Easterby and Seiber were told that if anyone, student or otherwise, filed a noise complaint against the **Liberated event, they would have to turn down the music or risk Public Safety shutting down the event altogether. Fearing that anyone could call in a complaint to just to thwart the event, Easterby and Seiber voiced their concerns, and asked what the consequence would be of disobeying Public Safety.


They were told that if they followed through with the event as planned, Student Life would pull three to five years of public safety records, and compile a master list of noise complaints filed against the Johnston Center. It was also suggested that Johnston’s right to porch parties could be taken away. Finally, there was the possibility of disciplinary actions being taken against students who helped organize the event, whom, it was suggested, were violating the University Code of Conduct.


But subjecting students to the code of conduct for not lowering music at an event isn’t standard procedure for Student Life.


Sponheim said in an email interview, “In the case of non-compliance with a noise issue; the general rule would be to request to lower the volume. Should requests be ignored, the event would be shut down by Public Safety.”


This is not the first time that Student Life has threatened students with punitive measures for attempting to hold a political event on campus. In November of 2015, University of Redlands senior, Austin Tannenbaum planned a protest against Mansfield Oil and Niagara Bottling, two companies invited to campus to offer students internship and job opportunities.


Tannenbaum said that during his experience, he was also instructed by the University not to hold his counter event.


“The day of the protest, I was contacted by the administration in two different, and I think intentionally intimidating ways. One was I got called by a public safety officer,” Tannenbaum said. “I was told protest policy is such at this school that I was only allowed to hold the protest in designated areas, and if I didn’t there would be Public Safety intervention, as well as disciplinary action being imposed upon me.”


Tannenbaum also received an email from the Dean of Student Life, Charlotte Burgess, who expressed that the protest could not be held at the site of the job fair.


Student Life, in both cases, attempted to dissuade students from engaging in events that many would consider a legitimate exercise of free speech. The tendency for the administration to take action, sometimes aggressive action, against students who wish to contest certain decisions made by the University is a concern that must be addressed if the university is to preserve the right to free speech for all.


photo courtesy of Damara Pratt