Augustana College President’s Office Statement on Freedom of Expression
This section is based on an interview conducted with Augustana College President Steven C. Bahls.
In 2016, a series of chalkings in support of Donald Trump appeared on the Augustana College campus that featured slogans including “Build a Wall” and “Feminism is Cancer.” In response, concerned students called on the college to institute a policy on hate speech. President Steven Bahls believed that the chalkings were protected speech, but wanted to take steps to address the real harm that hateful expression causes students on campus. The President’s Office decided to institute a set of principles that would guide how the college would respond to issues of free speech and inclusion, consulting with the faculty council and student leaders and undertaking extensive research. President Bahls decided to use PEN America’s Principles on Campus Free Speech as a foundation for the statement. Bahls said that he was drawn to the PEN Principles because they “come down strongly on the side of free expression,” while allowing the college to “acknowledge that speech can harm, support students, and encourage more speech.”
What we like about this statement
- Is the result of consultation with many stakeholders from across the university.
- Clearly communicates a set of principles to guide decisions by the President’s Office regarding speech-related incidents.
- Relies on principles rather than strict, codified policy, allowing the President’s Office to respond with nuance to issues that arise.
- Firmly supports free expression while acknowledging the real harm that speech can cause.
- Affirms the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and states that the college will speak out against harmful speech rather than punish it.
How this policy has been implemented
- The principles guided Augustana’s thinking on how to respond in the aftermath of the chalking incidents. Technically, the college had a policy against chalking on sidewalks, but President Bahls felt that enforcing said policy would be exploiting a technicality to enforce restrictions on speech that were not content-neutral. Instead, the President’s Office decided to restrict chalking to certain public areas of campus, preserving the content-neutral aims of the policy.
- An unaffiliated resident of a house surrounded by student residences and other Augustana-owned buildings displayed a confederate flag. Administrators asked the neighbor if he would consider removing it, and he refused. The President’s Office, guided by the principles they adopted, believed that the answer to the resident’s speech was more speech. The college provided free American flags to all student residents on the block, and the president hung a rainbow flag outside his own house in support of the diversity of Augustana’s student body.
- In honor of the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, an Augustana faculty member created an art exhibit entitled “Abortion Is Normal.” Augustana is a Lutheran college, and many religious community members were troubled by the exhibit. Some called for the exhibit to be removed and for the faculty member’s access to campus email to be revoked. Augustana College let the event continue, allowing the Augustana Catholic Campus Ministries to provide counter-programming as well.