Mo Gallagher, the assistant vice president for campus operations and facilities, described the first week of November as “a perfect storm.” On Nov. 2, a message featuring unverified allegations about professor Samuel J. Abrams was written on the free speech board outside of Hill House. Initially, the sign was painted over; however, due to heavy rainfall that night, campus operations physically removed the sign the following day, Gallagher said.
“We’ve never physically taken the sign down before,” she said. “It had to be removed, repainted, and then replaced.”
Multiple members of the school’s administration explained that the message about Abrams was removed because it fell outside of the boundaries of protected free speech.
“When you name an individual— it could be a faculty member, student, or staff member— when you make certain allegations about that individual’s behavior which are criminal in nature, without substantiation, that’s a form of defamation,” said Danny Trujillo, Dean of Studies and Student Life. Critiquing an institution such as the U.S. government or Sarah Lawrence College itself, however, is within students’ rights.
Trujillo suggested students refer to the “helpful resource” of the ACLU’s website to educate themselves on the definition of free speech under the Constitution.
The campus contains two free speech boards; one behind Hill House and one outside the Bates Center for Student Life. Above the Bates free speech board are plaques that read: “Express yourself. Respect your community. Hate speech is not free speech.”
The removal prompted questions and outrage from many students.
“I was disappointed by the removal,” said one student who helped to put up the postings about Abrams. “Even if it was about weather, taking it down has a lot of weight, especially when it’s a message that over 20,000 people have seen.” A video tweet of the board removal posted by the Phoenix has received over 27,000 media views.
Diversity Senator Jessie Shiner felt similarly frustrated with both the school’s decision to remove the board and the school’s response to the root of the action itself: Abrams’s op-ed.
“It’s noteworthy that people were more upset, seemingly, about the threatening of a white man’s position as a tenured faculty than they were about the threatening of two [now former] admin of color, who are some of the sole faces of color in the administration, publicly to the entire country in one of the most popular news platforms,” Shiner said.
After the Hill House board was replaced, a new message quickly appeared on the sign, stating, “SLC, admit your shame.” The student who wrote this message spoke to the Phoenix under the condition of anonymity.
“It’s interesting that the school is able to say, ‘that’s not true, that’s slander,’ without addressing the social reality,” they said. “I think the students got blamed for starting a dialogue, instead of the school taking responsibility for the fact that they couldn’t control a narrative that they’re responsible for. It’s not the students’ job to address inappropriate relationships between faculty and students.”
Following the replacement of the board, administration instated a rule that the paints used for the boards need to be checked out using ID cards. Gallagher told the Phoenix the conversation surrounding the paints came up due to “cleaning reasons.”
“Paint would get on the bricks around the board, and the plants below it, and would get tracked into Bates,” Gallagher said. “It’s not easy or cheap to clean paint off a building.”
Trujillo explained that the discussion began months before the message about Abrams was posted.
“Last year, the Committee on Student Life was trying to figure out if there was a way to protect the building, but still allow students to use the free speech board,” Trujillo said. After the message in November, the conversations essentially stopped, he continued.
“The paint check-out was not about what was posted on the boards. It was about if whoever was painting on the board could be identified, they could be held accountable,” he said, “so that the entire community doesn’t have to pay for reparation for those damages.”
Much of the student body, however, opposed this decision and the reasoning behind it.
“We could all tell that was a pretty elaborate lie,” Shiner said. “We’re adults, we’ll take responsibility, we’ll clean up our paints. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the right for free speech.”
The issue came up during multiple senate meetings. The initial decision, according to Crandall and Trujillo, stated that if students fail to clean the board, or if students cause any structural damage to the space around the board, they will be charged a $50 “Community Impact Fee.” In response, Senate discussed covering Community Impact Fees themselves, or supplying paint with Senate budget.
“I thought it was a big intimidation tactic to say ‘we’re actively taking away your material for free speech,’” Shiner said. “It creates a dynamic where if you have money to buy your own paint and to get your own resources, then you have the right to free speech. And if you don’t, then you’re either forced into either not having anonymity in your speech or you’re forced to spend money on something the school should provide.”
The removal also sparked rumors that the boards would be removed permanently. Gallagher explained that she was working with the Committee on Student Life to discuss better locations for the boards, but the two will remain up regardless.
Trujillo expressed his interest in a more open conversation with the community to “figure out what’s the best solution.”
“We focus so much on the free speech boards, which are one form of expression for different points of view,” Trujillo said. “However, they are not a context for dialogue. We haven’t really discussed what happens in the classrooms, what happens in the residence halls, what happens in the Pub and Bates.”
Shiner echoed Trujillo’s desire for more dialogue, instead of just speech. However, she advocated for this dialogue to not only happen more between students, but between the student body and administration.
“I wish it was treated with more gravity by those who it’s addressed to, because it’s frequently addressed to certain members of the administration and it never seems to receive an adequate response,” Shiner said. “If it does, it’s usually dismissive or reprimanding of the action. If you’re going to create that space for students, you need to work with it and be in dialogue with it.”
Amali Gordon-Buxbaum ‘21