With the election four days away, political discussion on campus is sparking questions of bias and free speech.  In  last week’s New York Times op-ed “Feigning Free Speech on Campus,” Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), decried the proliferation of speech codes at institutions of higher learning.  

Lukianoff contended that the codes not only fly in the face of the intellectual free enquiry colleges and universities value, “suppressing free expression instead of allowing for open debate of controversial issues,” but also would not pass constitutional muster at public institutions.  

FIRE ranks many American colleges and universities based on the degree to which their policies restrict free speech.  Bowdoin ranks in FIRE’s red category, which means there is at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. However, FIRE does not identify any specific policies at Bowdoin that meets those criteria. 

The College’s policies seek to foster an open environment for intellectual discourse, and there is no official speech code. The Faculty Handbook encourages members of the college community “to express their views on all matters including controversial, political issues in the public domain. Preservation of freedom of speech is a primary task of the College; the right to express both popular and unpopular views is to be protected.”  

As an institution, Bowdoin is careful to refrain from taking sides in politics.  Members of the community are expected to “avoid the appearance of speaking for Bowdoin” when they take public positions.  

President Barry Mills signed his letter to the editor in support of Question 1 last week as a private citizen, not as the president of the College.  Several major political figures have appeared this fall on campus—Karen Mills, Bob White, and Angus King—and several weeks ago Maine Public Broadcasting Network hosted a debate between the candidates running for the first congressional district in Studzinski Auditorium; the Bowdoin Daily Sun did not publicize any of these events.

Despite the College’s efforts to be   politically neutral, conservative students often feel that their views are suppressed.  When Bob White ’77 came to campus several weeks ago, several students at the lecture and the reception that followed  it expressed that sentiment. The Orient reported that “one attendee said that he hoped Bowdoin students would one day feel comfortable announcing themselves as Republicans.” 

Tyler Silver ’13, co-chair of the Bowdoin College Republicans, noted “there’s less tolerance on our campus for even viewing the conservative side of things.” 

John Grover ’14, a member of the Republicans, agreed with Silver, noting that he sometimes opts to keep his views to himself, “even though the whole point of being at an academic institution is to have that kind of flow of discussion.”

He said the College Republicans have focused on organizing events on campus—such as Bob White’s appearance— and on publishing op-eds in the Orient to show students “that it’s okay to have conservative values.” 

It has proven to be no easy task.  Professor of Government Richard Morgan, who teaches Constitutional Law, pointed out that “colleges and university campuses in America today are shockingly politically, morally and socially homogenous.”  In that context, he noted the inevitability of “sanctions imposed on those who disagree” with a dominantly held viewpoint.  

Judah Isseroff ’13, co-president of the Bowdoin Democrats suggested that that homogeneity is self-reinforcing.  There is, in his view, an expectation of liberal viewpoints on this campus, and “people come here expecting to find liberal folks.”  

This assumption is backed by the demographic reality: an overwhelming majority of students have liberal political views, illustrated by the fact that 76 percent of Bowdoin students told the Orient they intended to vote for Barack Obama in the upcoming election.

 Ben Richmond ’13, co-president of the Democrats, emphasized the “difference between bias and being outnumbered. A lot of people see themselves outnumbered and end up with this idea that people are biased against them.” 

 Richmond cited the debate on Tuesday evening—between students representing Republicans, Democrats, Green and the Occupy Wall Street Movement—as evidence of free discourse on campus.
Grover felt differently, suggesting that “there’s a much bigger stigma regarding political views that are right-of-center than there is regarding chem-free housing.”

Anecdotal examples of anti-conservative sentiments have cropped up this fall.  Sam Sabasteanski ’13, co-chair of the Republicans, described several encounters he had while tabling for the club at the Student Activities Fair in September. One student came up to him and told him he “was a bigot for not supporting gay marriage.” Sabasteanski doubted that similar antagonism would be directed towards students at the Bowdoin Democrats’ table. 

“It was acceptable for them to heckle me because I’m a Republican,” he said.

At the same event he was approached by students who “wanted to be on the mailing list, but they didn’t want to put their names down because they didn’t want anyone to see that they were affiliated” with the Republicans.  

Earlier this week several announcement boards in Smith Union were papered over with signs proclaiming, “A Vote For Romney = A Vote Against LGBTQ Equality.” The signs were removed within hours, but reappeared a day later.

The vote on Question 1, Maine’s referendum on same-sex marriage, brings to the fore a social issue that is emotionally charged and politically polarizing. Sabasteanski thought the political environment borne of Question 1 and the presidential race brings “conservative and liberal differences to the surface, and stifles people hearing conservative viewpoints on campus.” 

Despite the polarizing nature of the same-sex marriage question, 92 percent of Bowdoin students indicated support for it in this week’s Orient poll. Many of these students were registered Republicans or planned to vote for Mitt Romney, indicating that same-sex marriage itself is not as polarizing on Bowdoin’s campus.

Grover described hearing people say “you should not be Facebook friends or real life friends with someone who would vote for Romney because those people are, in so many words, evil, because they’re supporting so many of his policies that are sexist, racist or homophobic.”

Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster expressed concern that some students feel “that they can’t speak up because somehow they will be silenced or marked as conservative,” but added that “different students might feel that way about any number of issues.”

Grover, Sabasteanski and Silver stressed the importance of separating Republican social policies from other conservative policies. Isseroff saw it differently. 

“To expect Bowdoin students to forgive the Republican Party for discriminating whole-sale against women and gays is not a fair expectation,” Isseroff said.