Massachusetts college imposes mandatory event speech
Mount Holyoke attempts to redress tribal land loss
At 17, poet Emily Dickinson wrestled with faith. Writing from bucolic Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in western Massachusetts, she confided to her friend that religious fervor seized the campus, yet she remained one of 29 holdouts. “I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important [and] serious a subject,” Dickinson wrote.
Mount Holyoke College is a different place 175 years later. Still an all-female school with 2,200 students, the most solemn subject today examines the sins of colonization. Before every college-sponsored event, school leaders require the hosts to read a statement—four times longer than the Pledge of Allegiance, nearly twice that of the Lord’s Prayer—redressing “the displacement, removal and attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples.”
In October, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression asked Mount Holyoke College to discontinue forced use of the statement, which “should be read as part of any opening remarks delivered at a Mount Holyoke College–sponsored event,” according to the school’s policy. A free speech group based in Philadelphia, FIRE took no position on the statement’s political content. Rather, it objects to Mount Holyoke College compelling “those of us in western Massachusetts” to all blindly agree.
Alex Morey is FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy.
“When you, as administrators, are forcing faculty and students to express one university-approved view, that’s incredibly dangerous for fulfilling the purpose that universities are supposed to fill,” she said.
The event statement derived from a 2020 decision to confront the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and racism through an anti-racism action plan. Land acknowledgment statements are emerging on campuses nationwide as universities ramp up diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. Faculty objecting to such policies can find their careers in jeopardy.
Such is the case with Stuart Reges. A professor in the University of Washington’s Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, Reges sued the university this summer for viewpoint discrimination. Citing John Locke’s classical theory that people establish property rights by improving land, Reges held that the indigenous Coast Salish tribe can claim ownership of “almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.” University personnel had permitted some leeway in the statements. But when the Reges statement sparked controversy, campus leaders ordered it removed from his class syllabus.
At San Diego State, however, the University Senate narrowly voted to end the mandatory use of a land acknowledgment statement in March. Although Washington and San Diego State are public universities bound to follow the First Amendment, Mount Holyoke College is private.
That complicates the free speech picture. FIRE has yet to sue a private college, but the Oct. 6 advocacy letter it sent to campus leaders points to Mount Holyoke College’s own Statement on Free Inquiry and Expression. That statement reads in part: “Mount Holyoke College believes in the right, indeed the necessity, of free inquiry and free expression for every member of the college community.”
Therefore, FIRE contends, the college is morally and legally obligated to honor that promise by not mandating a land acknowledgment statement.
Mount Holyoke College officials did not respond to requests for comment from WORLD. Should they not respond to the letter within two weeks, FIRE plans a formal complaint to the school’s accrediting body, the New England Association of Colleges and Schools, about the sacrifice of free speech to “institutional orthodoxy.”
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