Freedom of Expression at Calvin University

Basic information

  • Approved by:
    • Calvin University Board of Trustees on October 25, 2019

At Calvin, we believe that the free exchange and expression of ideas flows from our Christian mission and contributes to the flourishing of our educational community and the health of our pluralistic society. Calvin has aspired to promote this ideal while remaining committed to our Reformed convictions throughout our 140-plus year history.

In order for us to learn to think deeply and act justly in response to today’s complex issues, we must first seek a fuller understanding of God’s word and God’s world. That understanding is not enriched by sitting in comfortable echo chambers. Instead, we must enter into brave spaces with confidence that doing so will strengthen individual convictions by engaging differing viewpoints in communities that welcome diverse voices and perspectives into the conversation. Our mutual understanding grows when we listen to one another well, and leave with deeper understandings of the issues and each other—even if our positions don’t change.

We believe that Calvin does well to promote this free exchange of various ideas and viewpoints. However, this freedom carries with it a tremendous responsibility. We must engage ideas and people wisely. We value rigorous debate, robust discussion, even strong disagreement on issues AND we hold our community to a high standard in how we have these conversations. We must always see our students, staff, faculty, guest speakers, and community members, first, as image bearers of God and neighbors we are to love as ourselves. It’s imperative that we enter into challenging conversations with a posture of humility, charity, and respect—vigorously engaging ideas, while respecting those with whom we disagree.

By creating brave spaces which encourage exchange of ideas, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of God and his world and a deeper love for our neighbor. In doing so, we more fully live into our missional commitment to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.

As we strive to embody this commitment, we align around a cohesive set of policies and procedures that guides our approach. The following links offer both rationale and clarity around community expectations and procedures, and the FAQ provides further information for various questions that arise in the course of this work.

Resources

FAQ

Is there such a thing as “freedom of speech” at Calvin?

Freedom of speech and expression are important concepts at Calvin University. As a private university, we are not legally bound to the same First Amendment requirements that public universities are. However, we believe that freedom of speech is an essential element of a university education because a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry is at the core of our Reformed faith and educational mission. This commitment to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning is outlined in Calvin’s publication entitled Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom, which provides an overview of our principles, practices, and approaches to exploring God’s world with a curiosity rooted in the convictions of our Reformed Christian confessions.

Does Calvin attempt to regulate freedom of speech or expression?

It is our policy to provide all members of Calvin University, including faculty, students, and staff, an opportunity to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn within an environment that fosters respect and love of our neighbors and helps us gain a deeper understanding of God and God’s world. We may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that freedom of speech is not incompatible with the functioning of Calvin University. We align our work around a variety of policies and procedures that articulate these aims and clarify standards of behavior for those who work, learn, live, and interact with the Calvin community. For more information, please visit the following links: Staff Handbook; Handbook for Teaching Faculty; Student Code of Conduct.

What does Calvin mean by “brave space?”

The term “brave space” was popularized by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens in 2013. Though they were writing specifically about classroom environments, the elements of “brave spaces” that they identified can be applied to all learning spaces, both inside and outside of the classroom.1

A brave space is one that encourages dialogue. Brave spaces involve the following:

  • Open discussion of sometimes opposing ideas with civility— environments in which varying opinions are accepted
  • Owning intentions and impacts—acknowledging and discussing instances where dialogue or behavior has affected the emotional wellbeing of another person
  • Challenge by choice—having the option to step in and out of challenging conversations but avoiding the tendency to retreat from ideas and perspectives that are at odds with our own
  • Respect—showing respect for others’ basic personhood
  • “No attacks”—agreeing not to intentionally inflict harm on another

Within brave spaces, differences are recognized, and each person is held accountable to doing the work of sharing their experiences as a means of helping all come to new understandings. This is hard work, and it can often lead to people feeling uncomfortable. We want our learning environments to be characterized by healthy, respectful relationships and we recognize that deep learning regularly occurs in moments when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones.

Why might Calvin University host a speaker or event that seems to be in tension with or in contradiction to its Reformed Christian convictions?

Calvin’s mission, vision, and purpose statement acknowledges that we “develop knowledge, understanding, and critical inquiry; encourage insightful and creative participation in society; and foster thoughtful, passionate Christian commitments.”2

Additionally, we “pursue intellectual efforts to explore our world’s beauty, speak to its pain, uncover our own faithlessness, and proclaim the healing that God offers in Jesus Christ.”3

As we engage this work, two inter-related themes create the conditions for this mission to flourish: our rootedness in common confessional commitments and an ethos of freedom that allows both the institution and its people the space to pursue teaching, research, and learning that work out the implications of these fundamental Christian commitments for every area of life. Confessional commitments and academic freedom make possible critical engagement with the working commitments of the Christian community across the spectrum of opinion, addressing challenges and opportunities on all sides of an issue and frequently questioning either/or thinking.

Additional information can be found here: Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom and From Every Nation.

Does Calvin University make statements related to issues of the day?

While Calvin has the right to make statements, we don’t exercise it as a policy. Our mission calls us to equip students to think deeply about many topics and issues, helping them wrestle with and seek a fuller understanding of them. In order to do this work well, we must encourage conversation, not limit it. In most cases, we see the issuing of statements as less a conversation starter, and more a monologue—a shot across the bow.

For this reason, Calvin University will rarely make public statements related to issues of the day. The university may choose to exercise this right, but only on issues of education policy as it relates to Calvin or on public issues that might have a bearing on our students or our community life. Calvin University intentionally avoids partisan alignment.

What would cause Calvin to attempt to limit freedom of speech or expression?

Calvin reserves the right to limit freedom of speech or expression when the intention of such speech or expression is to harm an individual or a group of people, when it is considered hate speech, or when it creates a hostile, unsafe environment. In short, when that speech or expression is used to attack rather than engage people and ideas. While Calvin values freedom of speech and expression wherever and whenever possible, we are also committed to providing an environment free of harassment and discrimination. These are not either/or commitments. With these values in mind, Calvin reserves the right to regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that freedom of speech is not incompatible with the functioning of Calvin University.

When there is a problem on campus that relates to freedom of expression or free speech, who is responsible for addressing it?

Calvin University is committed to providing a safe environment for students, staff, faculty, and guests of the university. Addressing issues related to freedom of expression and free speech depends, in large part, upon the types of problems that arise.

There are a variety of policies that offer guidance and clarity regarding behavioral expectations pertaining to specific areas of campus life, including Responsible Use of Technology, facilities usage, and residential living. Additionally, Calvin’s Safer Spaces Policy helps ensure that each person who has chosen to engage with Calvin University—faculty, staff, student, trustee, alumnus, volunteer, visitor, contractor, and vendor—is responsible for upholding the community’s stated standards of conduct.

When problems do arise, our first step is to determine what policy, procedure, and campus leaders are best positioned to assist and to coordinate response. Cheryl Brandsen, provost, brac@calvin.edu, Andy George, director of human resource services, alg35@calvin.edu, and Sarah Visser, vice president for student life, sav36@calvin.edu arepeople who can help make this determination.

How might I report an incident or situation that seems targeted, intentionally intimidating, or disrespectful to me or other members of the Calvin University community?

Within an institutional context, problems are bound to arise. Harassment, discrimination, and retaliation of any form are a violation of a person’s rights, dignity, and integrity. Such acts debase the integrity of the educational process and work environment and are contrary to the mission and values of Calvin University. In response to the reported misconduct, the university will take appropriate steps to eliminate the misconduct, prevent its recurrence, remedy its effects, and protect against retaliation.

When problems do arise, our first step is to determine what policy, procedure, and campus leaders are best positioned to assist and to coordinate response. Cheryl Brandsen, provost, brac@calvin.edu, Andy George, director of human resource services, alg35@calvin.edu, and Sarah Visser, vice president for student life, sav36@calvin.edu arepeople who can help make this determination.

Additionally, at Calvin University, the Safer Spaces Policy provides our community with a set of behavior standards, common understanding of definitions and key concepts, descriptions of prohibited conduct, and processes for submitting, investigating, and resolving reports. The policy is intended to protect and guide those who have been affected by harassment or discrimination, whether as a reporting party, a responding party, or a third party.

Calvin University is committed to an environment free from discrimination and harassment and calls on every member of the university community to be vigilant in deterring and reporting all violations. For more information or to file a report, please visit the Safer Spaces website.

How does Calvin help community members understand the difference between something someone might find offensive and instances of harassment or discrimination?

There’s a fine line between offense and harassment/discrimination, and that line is hard to define. While certain expressed ideas may be offensive to someone based on any number of factors, harassment occurs when those ideas are personalized or targeted at an individual or a group of people. It really comes down to intent and impact—how a person chooses to express or direct certain ideas and how those ideas are received.

Remarks that give offense, but are not discriminatory or harassing, are highly subjective and depend upon the context of the situation. Remedies in the workplace, the classroom, or the residence hall may be quite different. At Calvin, we recognize that our communications reflect not only on the institution but also on our witness as Christians. When problems do arise, a first step is to determine what policy, procedure, and campus leaders are best positioned to assist and to coordinate response. Cheryl Brandsen, provost, brac@calvin.edu, Andy George, director of human resource services, alg35@calvin.edu, and Sarah Visser, vice president for student life, sav36@calvin.edu are peoplewho can help make this determination and figure out if a line has been crossed from offense to harassment or discrimination.

Calvin University is committed to creating an environment free of discrimination and harassment and we encourage anyone who feels they have personally experienced or have witnessed harassment or discrimination to report it.

How does Calvin approach freedom of expression and free speech in its residence halls or other communal living spaces?

The on-campus living experience at Calvin University offers a unique and valuable opportunity for all residents to learn and grow within a Christian community of students from widely varying backgrounds, interests, and traditions. We desire that all residents live comfortably within this environment, are able to integrate classroom learning with out-of-class experiences, and are challenged to grow in all aspects of life.

To accomplish our goals and better order our lives together, we have established certain rules and expectations for living in community here at Calvin. These rules are meant to be guidelines for mature, responsible conduct, but in no way cover all the possible conflicts and questions that arise in a given year. Some of the policies are designed to create norms of behavior within a large, diverse group of people, while others are meant to preserve the function and appearance of university-owned property. Additional information regarding these policies and guidelines can be found in Calvin’s Residence Hall Reference Guide.

How does Calvin address technology and its intersections with freedom of expression and free speech?

Calvin University expects responsible use of technology by all users of Calvin information technology resources. The Responsible Use of Technology policy defines responsible use in regards to:

  • Respect for one another’s need for access
  • Respect for one another’s values and feelings
  • Respect for one another’s property
  • Respect for one another’s privacy
  • The stewardly use of the university’s information technologies
  • Respect for the ownership, right to use, and protection of information

The need to communicate with respect and integrity is particularly important within the context of technology. At Calvin, we recognize that our communications reflect not only on the institution but also on our witness as Christians.

How does Calvin University communicate its ethos, policies, and practices to outside groups or individuals who seek to utilize Calvin facilities for meetings or events?

All campus facilities are governed by policy that falls under the leadership of the director of campus events, in collaboration with the Events Advisory Committee. Additional information regarding these policies and guidelines can be found in the Calvin University Facilities Usage Policy.

What role do the advisors of student clubs and organizations play when it comes to freedom of speech and expression at Calvin?

All student clubs and organizations at Calvin University are required to have an advisor, who is typically a member of the university faculty or staff. While student organizations are chartered by the university, not all viewpoints and opinions held by student clubs, organizations, or their individual members reflect the views of Calvin University. To be recognized as an official student organization at Calvin, student clubs and organizations are required to demonstrate how their organization’s mission aligns with the educational mission of the university and Calvin’s Reformed Christian worldview. Advisors are encouraged to support freedom of speech and expression while also ensuring that the club and organization fosters effective learning and mutual respect. To this end, advisors are responsible for monitoring the process of bringing in speakers for student organizations and for assessing risk and impact. When advisors have questions about whether or not various speakers or events are appropriate within the institutional setting, they are encouraged to approach the director of the Campus Involvement and Leadership office or the vice president for student life. Additional information can be found in the Advisor Handbook.

What is Calvin University’s policy around hosting political candidates on campus?

As an institution in the Reformed Christian tradition, Calvin University believes that government and politics are parts of God’s created order and serve important public purposes. The university encourages active and faithful citizenship and approves of individual political activity by its students, faculty, and staff provided care is taken to ensure that the university’s name, reputation, and other resources are not implicated by that activity as constituting particular endorsement of a politically contested office, issue, or question.

To maintain its principal purpose as an educational and non-profit institution [in accordance with Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code] and to protect its name and reputation, the university as an entity may not engage in many of the political activities that are legitimate for its employees and students. At minimum, the university may not endorse a particular political candidate or political party or imply that one political party is more Christian than another. To provide clarity and guidance, the university adheres to a Policy for Hosting Political Candidates or Issue Advocates (available in the provost's office).

How does Calvin University handle public protests?

While affirming that constructive protest and discussion of issues are vital in a university community, we also recognize Calvin University’s obligation to maintain a campus atmosphere that respects the private rights of individuals and is conducive to academic work and learning. Calvin University’s Manner and Method of Dissent Policy offers clarity and guidelines that govern protests and demonstrations on campus.

When I encounter viewpoints, opinions, or expressions on campus that I do not agree with or that I find offensive, what should I do?

Our goal as a university is to educate, which includes helping our students learn how to engage ideas that are challenging, even offensive at times, so that when they leave Calvin they are equipped to handle difficult conversations with boldness and humility, and with a greater understanding of the issues. We see this as difficult, but necessary work. We aim to be a community that approaches this work with a posture of humility and a recognition of our own brokenness. And we aim to be a place that extends grace to one another as we continually learn how to do this work well in community.

So, we ask students to engage these challenging ideas, seek a fuller understanding of various viewpoints, examine other perspectives by asking hard questions, and to vigorously debate the value of the “idea” not the “person” espousing the particular viewpoint. This work gets messy sometimes, but as Arthur Brooks’ suggests, it’s not better to disagree less or to agree more, but instead to disagree better. This is accomplished when we treat one another as image bearers of God, when we are willing to listen to one another, seeking to understand each other’s viewpoints.

Of course, there is a line between being offended and being harassed or discriminated against. If a viewpoint, opinion, or expression's intent and/or impact seems to fall outside the bounds of our community expectations and causes harassment or discrimination, we encourage those impacted to report it or seek counsel on possible pathways toward resolution.

When Calvin hosts a speaker and/or a faculty member produces scholarly articles, should that imply the university’s endorsement of that speaker or professor’s viewpoints?

No. Calvin aspires to be a place where the free exchange of ideas happens. As we engage this work, two inter-related themes create the conditions for this mission to flourish: our rootedness in common confessional commitments and an ethos of freedom that allows both the institution and its people the space to pursue teaching, research, and learning that work out the implications of these fundamental Christian commitments for every area of life. Confessional commitments and academic freedom make possible critical engagement with the working commitments of the Christian community across the spectrum of opinion, addressing challenges and opportunities. Calvin aspires to encourage the free exchange of ideas and frequently question either/or thinking. We view the engagement of various tensions as vital to the Reformed project. We believe that this work sharpens our convictions and helps us gain greater understanding of both God and his world. Our mutual understanding grows when we listen to one another well and leave with deeper understandings of the issues and each other.


1 Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces. The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators, 135-150.

2 Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom: Principles and Practices at Calvin University

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