On Aug. 27, student leaders gathered in Collins Cinema to discuss Wellesley’s new transportation services. After Local Motion representatives spoke, Karen Petroulakis, Wellesley’s principal legal officer, announced that the college had implemented a new interim policy regarding protests and demonstrations. The interim policy, which was created by President Paula Johnson and members of senior leadership, introduced guidelines for those who wish to hold protests or “controversial” events on Wellesley’s campus. The regulation of protests on campus is a growing trend, and several other academic institutions, including Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley, have adopted similar policies in recent years.
On Aug. 29, two days after Karen Petroulakis spoke with student leaders about the college’s decision to regulate protests, Sheilah Horton, vice president and dean of students at Wellesley, informed the rest of the community about the new policy via email. Horton explained in the email that the purpose of the interim policy was not to restrict freedom of speech at Wellesley, but rather, to ensure the safety of the community. The email reads, “Our goal with this new policy was to take a proactive step—before the start of the new academic year––to ensure the continued safety of our community. The policy is not intended to restrict speech; rather, it offers a set of overarching guidelines to ensure students’ rights to safely assemble and protest.”
Though Dean Horton stated that the interim policy was not intended to restrict freedom of speech on campus, several students were concerned about effects the policy could have on protest culture at Wellesley. Less than 10 minutes after Dean Horton released her statement, Senior Davis Scholar Pris Nasrat, Daniela Kreimerman Arroyo ’19, Ni’Shele Jackson ’19, Casey Melton ’19, Madeline Wood ’19 and Sophie Hurwitz ’21, sent an email titled “Open Letter regarding the New Interim Demonstration Planning Policy” to the campus community. In the letter, the group expressed that while they did not doubt the administration’s good intentions, they believed the interim policy could seriously stifle freedom of speech on campus. The letter reads in part that, “While we have no doubt of the policy’s good intentions about maintaining a safe campus where debate over different viewpoints is celebrated, its wording and scope leaves significant potential to stifle student organizing and freedom of speech.”
The letter listed three primary concerns the concerned student group had with the interim policy. These concerns include the policy’s vague definition of what constitutes disrupting Wellesley’s “essential operations,” the fact that the policy significantly increased the power of Campus and Town Police in regulating protests and finally, that the policy could lead to the abuse of the Honor Code System to silence certain voices.
The concerned students concluded their letter by asking Senior Administration to revoke and replace the interim policy. The students stressed the importance of implementing a policy that was created transparently, and with the help of activists on campus; “It is due to these concerns that we ask you to revoke this interim policy until a new policy, one which is transparently created with consultation from student activists, which does not infringe upon our right to free assembly, and which supports student driver progress, can be put into place.”
The group also created a petition for other dissatisfied members of the Wellesley community to sign. Nasrat told The Wellesley News that 294 students, faculty members and alums signed the petition before it closed on Sept. 4.
Dean Horton’s email also mentioned that the interim policy would be passed onto the Task Force on Speech and Inclusion for feedback. However, members of the Task Force on Speech and Inclusion played no role in writing or implementing the policy.
Professor of English Kathryn L. Lynch, a general member of the Task Force, expressed concern to The Wellesley News that the group’s name was mentioned in the email; “The Task Force was a little bit frustrated that its name was associated when the policy went up. The email didn’t say that we had written the policy, but we were mentioned, which could imply that we had something to do with it, when we didn’t,” she said.
President Johnson addressed the controversy surrounding the interim policy in her “Welcome Back” email sent on Aug. 31. She apologized for Senior Administration unintentionally attributing the new policy to the Task Force on Speech and Inclusion. She also assured the campus community that the voices of concerned students were being heard, and that Wellesley’s administration would consider all of their feedback when finalizing the policy; “The process of drafting a final version of the policy will be a broadly consultative one, with opportunities for our community to give input and advice. I have been impressed with the thoughtful feedback we have already received from both student leaders and through yesterday’s open letter.”
However, due in part to the mounting concerns from students, faculty and staff, President Johnson ultimately decided to suspend the interim policy. She announced this on Sept. 4 via email. In the email, President Johnson indicated that a major part of her decision to revoke the policy was based on feedback from the campus community. Additionally, she stated that for a demonstration policy to be effective, the community must be confident in the means by which it was created. “After hearing thoughtful feedback last week from concerned students, faculty, and staff, I have realized how important it is that the community has confidence in the process used to develop and implement a policy with the impact of this one,” her email read. “Only then can the policy effectively achieve its intended benefit.”
Johnson then stated that Senior Leadership has already begun speaking with members of College Government and other interested students and faculty to develop a new policy. She indicated that there would likely be a new demonstration policy by the end of the fall semester.
Nasrat shared that she was pleased with President Johnson’s decision to revoke the interim policy; “Strong leadership means recognizing when mistakes are made and taking action. We thank the President for showing that. I’m happy that the staff, faculty and student concern over the protest policy at Wellesley has been heard and that it is suspended as the new policy is worked on.” She also suggested that several of the concerned students are willing to work with the administration on creating a new policy; “I know various of the concerned students are keen to work with the administration through MAC or other bodies to ensure marginalized and activist voices are represented in the future policy.”
Professor Lynch reiterated the importance of Senior Leadership listening to as many voices as possible as they create and finalize the new demonstration policy; “I think that whoever is tasked with writing the new policy should listen to everyone as much as possible. The original policy seems like it was addressed mainly to students, but faculty members may also be involved in protests and plan events that could turn out to be controversial. Every single member of the Wellesley community could be affected by this policy.”