A Censored Community: Students’ Speech, Expression Encumbered, DePauw Criticized

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On the day of the presidential election, junior Lauren Hickey, donning a gray DePauw crewneck decorated with buttons that read, “Trump 2020” and “I heart capitalism,” posted a selfie on Instagram holding up an “I voted” sticker.

The caption read, “I am a proud Conservative Woman. I am voting for four more years. I am voting for someone who protects & uplifts the Constitution. I am voting for someone who loves the United States, & that someone is Donald Trump. Though we may not agree, I ask  you respect my voting decision as I have respected yours, isn’t that what this country is all about? Go Vote & Use Your Voice!!!” 

Throughout the day, DePauw students commented on the post, both in support and opposition. 

Three students wrote long rebuttals in the comment section criticizing Hickey’s post. Other students interacted with the comments, accumulating between 30-90 likes, in addition to a number of replies. 

Some people respectfully disagreed. Junior Marisol Karmel’s comment gained 47 likes, saying, “If you ever think that Donald Trump will put the american people before himself then you are absolutely wrong. Why don’t you go count the number of times Trump went golfing while Americans with COVID-19 were hospitalized and put on ventilators? Also, as a woman supporting trump, you are being blatantly anti-feminist & working against your own rights as a woman. Don’t care who you vote for but maybe be informed about what this man can do to your own rights and not in a good way. Can’t wait for him to get voted out tonight!!”

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A screenshot taken by The DePauw of Hickey's Instagram caption.

Other responses were much more scathing. Hickey’s post and several other DePauw Republican’s posts also circulated on Instagram stories. 

A few of the instagram stories had captions that read: “expose complacent Trump supporters. Wake up and smell the corruption,” “local trump trash,” “I don’t know this b**** but she screams republican look at her mouth,” and “give a round of applause to the students who voted for Trump. You are truly ignorant and a true horror to the Depauw community. I’ll never forget you voted on the side of hate and I’ll be sure to contact all of your future employers to let them know as well!!!” 

By the end of the week, bias incident reports were filed against at least four students who criticized Hickey’s post in the comments and at least one student who shared Hickey’s image and other DePauw self-identified Republicans on their story. 

DePauw University has repeatedly been criticized by independent organizations and students across the political spectrum for speech codes and widespread self-censorship as well as community-censorship.

In a December report, DePauw was rated as a Red light institution by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). According to FIRE’s website, their database rates an institution’s written policies governing student speech. 

Four of DePauw’s speech codes were flagged by FIRE. The Harassment Policy and Electronic Communications and Acceptable Use Policy  were flagged as being code Red policies. Each of these policies define speech and conduct that is unacceptable, such as ethnic, racial, religious, age, disability or sex-related jokes, epithets, stereotypes or slurs, foul or abusive language, or sharing content that promotes hate or violence, which, according to FIRE, clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. 

The Sexual Harassment policy and Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) are, according to FIRE, code Yellow policies. Yellow ratings apply to policies that place limitations on expression, or, “by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” 

DePauw also came in last in the College Free Speech Rankings, based on a survey of roughly 20,000 students at 55 schools across the country. According to the students they surveyed, 71% said they practice self-censorship, though, the number of DePauw students surveyed is unclear.

Students across the political spectrum reported discomfort when expressing their opinions or sharing experiences in classrooms, on campus, and in social spaces like social media.

According to Dr. Jeffrey McCall, professor of communications and free speech expert, it’s important to remember that the First Amendment protects against censorship by the government. Private universities, such as DePauw, do not have to preserve a student’s First Amendment rights. 

“You can, within societies, create what amounts to community censorship where the government is not involved,” Dr. McCall said.

Students interviewed cited experiencing three forms of censorship on DePauw’s campus including administrative-censorship, community-censorship and self-censorship. Community-censorship can take form in “cancel culture,” or the social ostracization of individuals; in contrast, self-censorship emerges when a person controls the way they act or speak to avoid or mitigate confrontation. 

Censorship on campus is not unique to this year. Last spring, senior Maddy Green made a research-based art project that pasted facts and statistics about Greek life onto a bench. This project was made for their community based sculpture class that critiqued sexual violence in Greek life on a national level. Following its display inside the Peeler lobby, Daylon Weddle, Assistant Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, contacted the professor, Lori Miles, to discuss it.

According to Weddle, the Interfraternity Council brought their concerns to him about the installation. Having taken classes with Miles when he was a student, Weddle reached out to her about the information on the bench. 

“The particular bench in question had a strong critique of Greek life, but the issue was rather derived from the false data that was used and not the actual sentiment of the piece,” Weddle said. “When it comes to freedom of speech, I feel this is an extremely important yet difficult topic to navigate. Falsely sharing statistics, however, is not freedom of speech.”

Green said that the information that Weddle claimed to be misinformation was uncited data about Greek life on a national level and was not about DePauw’s specific chapters.

“They said that I couldn’t have it up, because all of the facts that I had written down didn’t have a citation next to them,” Green said. “They were all real statistics that I got from scholarly sources. But they said, because I didn’t put a citation on it, there was no evidence of truth, it looked like I was just spewing information.”

Ultimately, Green removed the project from the public eye and placed it in a less conspicuous location—a closet in the Peeler sculpture room. 

While this is one example, censorship takes many forms and emerges from a range of circumstances on DePauw’s campus, and according to the Real Clear Education report, 71% of students reportedly practice self-censorship. Sophomore Posse Scholar Nathaniel Swanson gauges the atmosphere and spaces that he exists in at DePauw, a predominantly white institution, before engaging in certain conversations or situations. 

Once, one of Swanson’s white friends debated with him whether or not someone said the n-word and “meant it like that.” On another occasion, a student approached him to discuss his poetry, and then told Swanson that “not everything is about race.” And in a recent instance, a white student reached out to touch his hair, and while he did not, it is an act that Swanson describes as “violent.”

When situations like these arise, Swanson must decide to engage or not—and to what degree. Each time, there are a number of complex questions he must consider: Is this space safe? How might it impact his professional trajectory or reputation? Will he be ostracized? Is he hurting a white person’s feelings who is supposed to be his friend? Is he upsetting the professor? 

“I think in situations like that it’s a matter of, do I have the emotional capacity to sit here and defend my art, to defend my personhood, to defend my blackness, to defend my understanding of the world,” Swanson said. “It’s like, do I really need to do that? Is it my duty to? Should I? Does this person deserve that explanation?”

Although Swanson did not claim to have reported any bias incidents, BIRT was created as an anonymous way to report instances like when he knew of students saying the n-word or other racist/derogatory slurs. 

The Bias Incident Report Team (BIRT), cited by FIRE as a code yellow violation, was developed for students who experience a bias incident, “an act of prejudice against an individual or groups based on their actual or perceived race/color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity/expression, age, disability, sexual orientation, and/or veteran or military status,” as defined by BIRT.

After images of Hickey and other conservative students circulated on social media, Hickey’s friends felt “pushed to their breaking point,” and filed BIRT reports on at least five people. It is unclear what category these reports were filed under. 

Kevin Hamilton, the assistant dean of students and director of housing and residence life and member of the Bias Incident Response Team did not respond to The DePauw’s request for comment. 

“I get it, it’s like, you don’t agree with us, but to the point where it’s basically bullying,” Hickey said. “That’s basically what we were starting to get at when [people] started to post things about the way people looked. I was like, ‘really? No one, no one asked for that.”

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Senior Courtney Boyce is one of the students who reposted and left criticizing comments on posts from Trump supporters, including Hickey’s. Boyce believes that anything put on the internet is fair to repost and comment on— especially since people feel more bold online. 

“We see Trump supporters all over Instagram, but never on campus and never wearing their stickers, hats and sweaters in public places, because they know where they feel safe and where they don’t,” Boyce said. “And so cancel culture kind of puts people into a place where it’s like, ‘if you’re willing to do this on the internet, then you better be willing to do it in person.”

The pushback that Hickey feels is not exclusive to election week or confined to social media. On campus, Hickey tries to keep it under wraps that she is a Republican. 

Not only does Hickey’s political science advisor not know that Hickey is a Republican, but Hickey says that her advisor believes her to be “very, very liberal.” In classes, Hickey fears pushback from peers and professors, both socially and academically. In her sorority, there are expectations for conservative members to attend things like the Day of Dialogue, however, when conservative speakers like Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, come to campus, Hickey believes that there is not the same expectation for her liberal sorority sisters. 

“I think the reason they felt like it was the best choice [to file a BIRT report] is because, people who share my political beliefs, we’ve been put down for so long,” Hickey said. “It’s kind of like, well, maybe now it’s our turn to be on the offensive.”

Green, the same student whose bench was removed from public view, also reposted images of Hickey and the DePauw Republicans. Green is non-binary and feels that people who support Trump are not just supporting a politician who could undermine their rights, but who puts their existence in danger. 

“They might not get this but that Trump hat is violent towards my identity,” Green said. “And like, your life, like just by posting that selfie, with an I voted sticker and a Trump hat that is literally a threat against my identity.”

“Cancelling” or calling people out on social media is nothing new to Green. According to them, DePauw students receive an education that should equip them to understand why—Green believes—their beliefs are wrong. 

“I would never come after somebody who made an innocent mistake,” Green said. “I believe people grow and people change, but also, it’s 2020. We’ve had Trump for four years. If you’re unable to see the problems with that presidency, then obviously you have some bigotry.”

Despite the reasons students had for sharing Hickey’s post, Hickey pointed to the divisive nature of cancel culture. “I don’t really think it’s productive, [and] to be honest, I think it almost leads to more polarization,” Hickey said. “When you shut someone down, it just completely loses that side.”

On the same day that Hickey’s post circulated Instagram stories, another post spread across social media as students criticized what some saw as a xenophobic comment allegedly made by a DePauw student. 

When asked to comment on the situation, the accused student “highly advised” The DePauw not to write about them since they have an attorney and no longer attend the school.

When talking about the First Amendment, McCall said that it is okay to disagree with people, but this constitutional protection was put in place to allow people’s ideas and opinions to flow untouched by government censorship—even if they are offensive, controversial or unpopular.

Following this logic, McCall says that as ideas flow through society, the sensible ones will rise to the top, while the crazy or fact-challenged, or harmful ones will be treated as such and eventually diminish. This is a natural cycle that McCall believes people should be wary of obstructing.

“I do think that we do need to be concerned for community censorship,” Dr. McCall said. “Because at a university, presumably, we want to look at all kinds of ideas, and challenge different ideas.”

However, when looking at society’s role, there is a clear distinction between disagreement and censorship, and according to Joseph Harris, the coordinator for the Center of Diversity and Inclusion, disagreeing with someone or criticizing what they said is not censorship. 

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism,” Harris said. “[Your] freedom of speech doesn’t negate the fact that I also have freedom of speech; you have the right to say something, and I have a right to dispute it.”

**Please note two changes have been made since the article was originally posted: The FIRE report was originally listed as being published in August, but it has since been changed to December. In addition to this, the article said that a student “touched” Swanson’s hair, when in fact, the student only reached out to touch his hair.