Questions of Free Speech Policies Raised at Fordham University

Freedom of speech has entered the national dialogue as a defense to protect the discourse of extremists and controversial platforms. This conversation has entered Fordham University’s own public sphere, emphasized by an inconsistency of administration actions regarding the club status of Student Justice for Palestine (SJP) and the Fordham University College Republican’s (FUCR) speaker Roger Stone.

Photo Courtesy of Simon Gibbs

In Nov. 2015, a group of students began the official process to make SJP a recognized club. The year long process included creating a constitution that outlined the club’s mission of advocating for Palestinian rights in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Concerns were raised when chapters of SJP on other campuses have been accused of being anti-Semitic.

Once this process was complete, the organization then must be reviewed by the United Student Government (USG), which decides whether or not a club will be accepted. USG approved SJP’s proposal, however their decision was soon undermined by the administration who vetoed their decision in the fall of 2017.

In a statement made to Inside Higher Ed on the administration’s decision, Dean of Students at Lincoln Center, Keith Eldredge, said, “Fordham has no registered student clubs the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation, against another nation…Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.”

To Julie Norris, a junior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center and one of four petitioners in the lawsuit against Fordham, club status is crucial “for legitimacy, consistency, and the ability to do just about anything visible on campus,” such as flyering and hosting events.

Regarding accusations of polarization, Norris said, “In a way, students opposing SJP are a big reason we want to exist and to be able to spread information. SJP is absolutely not about attacking anyone. We want to act in a way that is responsible and effective towards our goals for justice.”

For many activists on campus, the administration’s decision to veto the group’s club status was a limitation on freedom of speech, as many demonstrated in a protest on Jan. 23, 2017.

Student protest outside Fordham in favor of SJP. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kozub/The Observer

Over a semester later, the university’s jurisdiction regarding controversy on campus was called into question again when Rose Hill based FUCR announced their first speaker of the year on Oct. 5: right-wing political strategist and former presidential adviser, Roger Stone.

Fordham Lincoln Center’s Students for Sex and Gender Equality and Safety (SAGES) quickly posted a response on their Facebook page condemning Stone for his past of using racial and sexual slurs and promoting conspiracy theories denying the Holocaust.

Rose Hill student Jacob Linker was the one who proposed to bring Stone to Fordham after watching the Netflix documentary, “Get Me Roger Stone.”

“It’s all about promoting political engagement,” Linker said, acknowledging that Stone is “in many, many ways a toxic figure.”

Students were abuzz with whether or not Fordham’s administration had a responsibility to veto the event, similar to their decision to veto USG’s decision to grant SJP club status.

After almost a week of silence from the administration, two hours before Roger Stone was to speak on Oct. 5, Fordham University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J. issued a statement regarding Stone’s campus appearance, clarifying that the event was not “University-sponsored or University funded.”

“Our students have every right to hear what Mr. Stone has to say,” Fr. McShane wrote. “No point of view has the exclusive right to freedom of speech, and I encourage you all to use that right freely and wisely.”

Roger Stone speaking at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. Photo courtesy of Colin Sheeley/The Observer

Norris, however, believes that Fordham has a duty to protect minority students who may be targeted by hate speech, which does not necessarily entail protecting all free speech.

“Fighting for SJP in terms of free speech is not about all speech being protected, but about protecting speech that has been systemically and historically silenced,” Norris said. “It’s pretty clear what kind of speech is progressive and what is oppressive. Fordham administration has the ability to distinguish between these, they just don’t. Instead they selectively choose when students should be silenced.”

Due to the ongoing litigation, Dean Eldredge can no longer speak directly about SJP. However, he expanded on the theory behind the club veto in comparison to the allowance of Roger Stone on campus in the abstract.

“There’s a difference between allowing speech on campus versus university support for a topic. The university isn’t going to put official sponsorship against things that go against church teachings,” Dean Eldredge said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t have dialogue about them in the spirit of free speech.”

While FUCR is a Fordham-sanctioned and funded club, the members sought outside resources to pay Stone’s speaker fee, linking a GoFundMe campaign on Facebook.

Ultimately, it boils down to whether or not Fordham will financially support a cause. Not providing university resources towards a group’s facilitation, according to Fordham, is not the same as censorship.

Dean Eldredge reiterated Fordham’s commitment to free speech and ideological diversity, saying, “Folks have to have the ability to discuss a wide variety of issues, and if we’re only focusing on some group, then I don’t think that’s really a true education.”