New task force on civil discourse and free expression: Cultivating campus conversation

by Annika Bjornson | Staff Writer

Learning how to approach civil discourse and free expression is a continuing theme on campus. On Monday September 9, the Whitworth community received an email from President Beck Taylor announcing the commissioning of a new task force devoted to exploring these issues on campus.

As a continuation of the 2017-2018 colloquy on civil discourse led by Taylor and in response to the dialogue following the decision on the Ben Shapiro invitation last spring, the group will engage in a yearlong process of discussing, writing and revising a special document.

According to Taylor’s email, “the task force will develop a written statement of values and priorities as it pertains to Whitworth’s commitments to both free expression and civil discourse, and it will address the opportunities and challenges inherent in elevating both of these commitments simultaneously, especially within a faithful Christian community.” 

Dr. Erica Salkin from the Department of Communications will be serving as the chair of this task force. She has written a dissertation and three books on free expression rights and responsibilities in schools.

“This is not a policy document,” Salkin said. “Before you do the ‘what,’ you have to do the ‘why.’ That’s the work of this task force…Once we’ve decided on the ‘why,’ with the collaborative effort of faculty, staff, students, trustees, with administrators…then we can start thinking about policy that honors our principle.”

Joining Salkin is a group of others from diverse areas of campus life. These other members of the task force include Dr. Lee Anne Chaney (Department of Biology), Jason Chapman (Director of Student Activities), Dr. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis (Chief Diversity Officer), Nancy Hines (Associate Vice President of University Marketing & Communications), Dr. Fred Johnson (Department of English), Dr. Nate King (Department of Philosophy), Dr. Josh Leim (Department of Theology), Colin Messke (student), John Sowers (Trustee), Laura Waltar (ASWU Student Appointee), and Dr. Tim  Wilkinson (School of Business).

Once these students, faculty, staff and other community members have had the opportunity to voice their perspectives in the process, the task force aims to present its document for review to the Board of Trustees in October 2020.

Taylor discussed this initiative as a way to continue conversations on campus about free expression. 

“The colloquy I hosted two years ago on civil discourse was certainly a function of our cultural conversation at that time,” Taylor said. “I could already see that communities like Whitworth were struggling to learn how to be in civil community while we disagree with one another, and I want Whitworth to be the kind of place where we can disagree with one another…I always want us to model and elevate virtues that maybe we don’t see a lot in the world around us.”

In March of 2019, ASWU voted not to allow Ben Shapiro, a conservative political writer, speaker and author, to speak on campus through the Young Americans for Freedom club. The community was divided on this issue and the event sparked many conversations on campus.

“The issue was raised again in the spring when our community was so divided around the Ben Shapiro invitation,” said Taylor. “Coming out of that, I felt like we needed to chase this issue some more. There’s some unresolved conversations we need to have and I look forward to having those conversations, but this task force is a group of university citizens that is charged with a very specific task, and that is to give some clarity and definition to our priorities and values…to be a voice for all of us to say, these are the things at our best that we want to elevate as a Christian community.”

Damian Sanchez, a sophomore, described feeling disillusioned after the Ben Shapiro decision and wrote a letter to President Beck Taylor titled “I’m a Brown, Immigrant Democrat & I Want Shapiro on Campus.” 

“I believe the best course of action in an academic setting when faced with an idea I do not agree with is not to censor and silence [the person I disagree with], but to instead rebut them and intellectually show them how their ideologies are wrong, misplaced and ignorant,” Sanchez wrote in his letter.

After sharing his letter with Taylor, Sanchez was invited to be a student’s voice and presence on the task force. 

“[Taylor] was very gracious and invited me to his office to talk about the letter and what we could do about it and that’s how I got put into this task force pretty early on,” Sanchez said. “To me, freedom of expression means the freedom to be able to express oneself without fear of repercussions…On a university campus, it’s a bit more unique because I see the university as a place where you shouldn’t be kept from ideas you don’t agree with. Rather, it should be a place where you’re able to express ideas that may be controversial and it should be a safe place not from controversial ideas but for controversial ideas.”

Salkin said that civility is the key to effective conversation on campus. 

“Ultimately, free expression feeds into a better understanding of self and the pursuit of truth, and those are two things that a higher education is all about. Civil discourse is what makes free expression more effective,” Salkin said. “Civil discourse brings that layer of respect into free expression that says this is both a right and a responsibility…We also have to recognize that ‘civil’ is culturally defined, and so we have to figure out what we believe ‘civility’ means here at Whitworth.”

Taylor pointed to a distinction between the terms “free speech,” which he said “is shorthand for the First Amendment,” and “free expression.” 

“As a private institution,” Taylor said, “we actually are not held accountable by law to the First Amendment…We have all the authority and independence under the law to do that…That said, I want us to honor our country’s tradition of free speech and I want to tread lightly as we regulate speech on campus.”

In recent history, the most similar situation to the Ben Shapiro decision was in 2010 when the university exercised its ability to be independent from the First Amendment by asking members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a church known for its inflammatory speech, to carry out their protests off campus property. In this particular case, the Whitworth community was almost entirely unanimous in deciding that they did not want the group’s infamous hate speech on campus.

Looking forward, Taylor, Salkin and Sanchez each express confidence in how the task force’s purpose can play into Whitworth’s mission as a Christian institution. 

“If you think about it, Jesus embodied that idea of speaking truth to power, even if it was controversial,” Sanchez said. “Back in his day, to speak out against religious leaders and to speak out against Rome was signing your own death sentence, and because of that,
people shied away from it. I very much admire that he was willing to accept the consequences of it and take it nonetheless. It’s at the very heart of the Christian mission.”

Salkin presented the university’s Christian framework as a good place for this upcoming document about dialogue and disagreement. 

“What makes [Whitworth] uniquely different and special is that we really affirm that integration [of faith]. That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to, is not just presenting this [statement of purpose] as a benefit to education and to democracy, but it is something that we are called to do as people of faith, as a Christian organization…I think it’s going to be unique. But that’s Whitworth. We’re up for the challenge. We’re kind of awesome like that.”

Whitworth’s clearly-stated commitment to civil discourse will continue to be shaped in different ways by the current political context and by the ways in which this community responds to what is happening in the world. The hope is for this statement, created by the new task force, to bring some structure to the shared vision of the university.