Shots ‘FIRE’d at Wheaton’s Freedom of Expression Policy

By Silver Melendez and Emma Keirnan.

The Chicago Statement was created by the University of Chicago to ensure “free and open discourse.” Many colleges have adopted the Chicago Statement to build a learning community that allows students to engage in conversations with a range of viewpoints. Wheaton adopted the statement as well, updating their policy as recently as 2022. 

The FIRE organization defends students and their rights on college campuses. One of their public initiatives involves reviewing various colleges’ Free Expression policies each year. Afterwards, they conduct an analysis to determine how much the policies are limiting the students’ right to free expression. Once FIRE completes their analysis, they post a list of colleges ranked by openness to diversity of opinions. In the 2022 analysis, Wheaton College received a yellow speech code rating. According to FIRE, this means that the college has “​​​​at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” As a result, FIRE ranked Wheaton 149 out of 248 for its free expression policy.

The criticism of Wheaton College’s Freedom of Expression Policy

In their article about Wheaton College, the author, Laura Beltz, concedes that Wheaton retained much of the statement. However, she believes that the college’s ability to take down written posted materials at their “sole discretion” violates the students’ right to freedom of expression. The author also points out the ambiguity of “sole discretion,” insisting that this phrase could have many interpretations; some of which could be used to unjustly limit students’ speech. The author cites an example of how Wheaton’s policy could limit political speech. For instance, the policy states that students cannot post material that “target[s] an individual or organization for negative purposes.” In FIRE’s interpretation, this means that certain political views could be censored. In order to discuss political issues, students often have to critique the beliefs of organizations and the people behind them.

FIRE may have a point about the ambiguity of the wording “sole discretion.” Those words could be interpreted in a way that allows administration to take down any material posted on campus, for any reason. That being said, FIRE omitted the next part of the policy, which listed the various limitations that Wheaton has on posted written materials. Aside from disallowing materials that “target an individual or organization for negative purposes,” the college also does not permit anything that “contain[s] any obscene content… is misleading or misrepresentative; advertise[s] or promote[s] the use of illegal substances; or promote engagement in other illegal activities.” FIRE did not place “sole discretion” in context of these limitations.

Still, the phrasing of the policy does not explicitly state that written material will only be taken down if it falls under these criteria. This means that content that does not fall under the college’s limitations might still be taken down under the umbrella of the college’s “sole discretion.” The wording leaves open the possibility that certain opinions and speech could be limited at the discretion of administration.

 Wheaton College President Michaele Whelan shed light on the limitations on students’ freedom of expression at Wheaton. She explained the intent of the policy to maintain a respectful learning environment. Whelan expressed that “the college’s sole discretion” did not mean that any random administrator could take down posted written material on a whim. Rather, there is a process in which the President, Provost, and Dean of Students discuss whether or not the material violates the Free Expression policy.

As FIRE pointed out, the Wheaton policy stated that the college does not permit posted material that “target[s] an individual or organization for negative purposes.” However, Whelan rejected the idea that this clause was related to political discourse.

“We are concerned about expressions of forms of hatred toward social groups, like anti-Semitism, or hatred or slander against individuals. For instance, if there were multiple students running for a position in SGA, and some of their campaigning against the other person gets out of hand.” Said Whelan

Conversations with the Wheaton administration also revealed that the students take part in approving such policies. Darnell Parker explained that he shared the Free Expression Policy with the Core Four of SGA (President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer) last year before it was released. “We make an effort to include student feedback on policies that may impact the student experience and we [always] try to include the appropriate constituents in policy that may impact them.” Said Parker

Once a policy is approved, there does not seem to be a Wheaton policy or precedent for challenging the college’s choices to take down content. In contrast, Suffolk University, another private learning institution, does have a policy that allows students to challenge the school. Suffolk has also adopted the Chicago Statement. In their policy, they discuss the statement in context of freedom of assembly, but they also include an appeals process if a member of the Suffolk community feels that their freedom was violated.

 If the taking down of posted materials is up to Wheaton’s “sole discretion,” it is unclear how a student would go about challenging the college’s decision.

Conversation with the current Wheaton administration showed that they formed the Freedom of Expression Policy with the protection of social groups, campus organizations, and students in mind. Both Whelan and Parker emphasized the importance of facilitating free and open discourse while not allowing disruption to the learning environment. The college wants to prioritize student voices and ensure that they are heard. However, the college also has a responsibility to make sure that the school is a place where students can “balance free exchange here on campus with the honor code [while maintaining] free interpretation and opinion in the classroom.” Said Parker

 As a learning institute, Wheaton has a responsibility to ensure an inclusive learning environment. Part of this responsibility includes upholding the college’s rules about speech that causes harm.

FIRE is concerned with what kind of speech the college considers harmful. In her article, Laura Beltz references the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps, in which the author points out that despite offensive language, the ruling decided that even “hurtful speech” should be protected. In this case, members of the Westboro Baptist Church had begun to picket at Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral. On their pickets, they included many homophobic slurs, much of which expressed their frustration with LGBTQ+-identifying people, like Snyder, who was in the U.S. military.

 However, it is important to note that this case did not take place on a school campus. The court ruled that Phelp’s speech was lawful because he was criticizing the government for employing LGBTQ+ people in the military. What is important to note here is that Phelp was criticizing the government in a public space. However, unlike in Snyder, Wheaton College is a private institution, where constitutional rights don’t always fully apply. As said by President Whelan, “​​FIRE evaluates free speech as it is on public state-owned land, they operate on free speech everywhere. Wheaton is a private institution, which will have its own policies as a learning institution.” One of the best examples of this is found in freedom of expression, as outside of the school campus, people can express their beliefs without consequence to a greater extent. However, as one steps foot on the Wheaton campus, their freedom of expression will be limited as per Wheaton’s Free Expression Policy. That being said, the college wants to be a space that allows people to share their respective opinions as long as it maintains a safe learning environment.

Whelan specifically emphasized that Wheaton does not want students to self-censor. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, self-censorship is defined as “the act or action of refraining from expressing something (such as a thought, point of view, or belief) that others could deem objectionable.” Regardless of location, self-censorship is something that many people do, especially to avoid judgment from others. Professor Gerard Huiskamp, a political science professor at Wheaton College, explained how he has encountered self-censoring at Wheaton. Over the past 20 years, Huiskamp has spoken to some students who did not feel as though their ideas would be respected because they were the minority opinion. “While some ideas were celebrated, there were others that were not.” As a college, Wheaton has a responsibility to maintain an environment where students of all opinions feel comfortable to have their voice be heard. However, Huiskamp emphasized that it is also the role of students and faculty members too. By keeping an open mind and being keen on challenging the idea rather than the person, people will be more comfortable with sharing their opinions and will be less likely to self-censor.  

As of right now, the phrasing of the Wheaton Free Expression Policy could raise issues of interpretation from future administrations who are not as intent on facilitating free and open discourse. Wheaton’s current free expression policy could potentially open a door to a violation of freedoms. Although even FIRE acknowledges that private institutions are not prohibited by law from limiting expression in various ways, they do believe that private institutions have a moral obligation to uphold absolute freedom of expression. It’s not a question of law, but of values. “While private institutions are not directly legally bound to uphold the Constitution, those that promise debate and freedom are morally bound…to uphold the fundamental principles of free speech and of academic freedom, principles that underlie the First Amendment.” 

Whether or not the policy is “arbitrarily” limiting students free expression, Huiskamp’s point still stands. It is up to the faculty to encourage all viewpoints in their classrooms. It is up to the students to speak their minds and be open to all perspectives. Regardless of policy, without an inclusive community that values open dialogue, not everyone’s voice will be heard.