Free Speech at Fordham: Seitz Looks to the Future


Jonathan Seitz, associate professor of theology at Fordham University. (JON BJÖRNSON/THE OBSERVER)


On Feb. 27, 2018, Associate Professor of Theology Jonathan Seitz released a petition titled “Statement on the Future of Free Speech at Fordham” to members of Fordham University. This petition called for Fordham to create a better policy concerning free speech on campus—allowing students more freedom when it comes to speaking out on social justice issues and giving constructive criticism to decisions made by the university.

A little over a month later, Seitz has received both criticism and praise for the petition, which has started a conversation on campus between both staff and students about free speech at Fordham. As of March 25, 2018, Seitz’s petition has 146 signatures. Seitz hopes that the conversation that this petition has started will lead to changes in university policy—creating a more open and accepting place for both students and staff to express their opinions. The Observer conversed with Seitz to discuss the university’s reaction to the petition and his goals for the future regarding free speech at Fordham.

Gianna Smeraglia (GS): You found your inspiration to create this petition by reading Anya Patterson’s op-ed in the Fordham Ram. Do you often find yourself inspired by students?

Jonathan Seitz (JS): For sure! You all are on the ground and feeling the brunt of all this, although it does also impact everyone at the university. I’m continually amazed by students’ creativity, dedication and thoughtfulness. I am trying more and more to learn from students, to understand student concerns and perspectives; I have room to get better at this!

GS:  Some of Fordham’s top administrators, including President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J. and the Dean of Students at Lincoln Center Keith Eldredge, have claimed that they were either unaware of the petitions existence prior to The Observer’s initial article about it or that they did not have access to it. Has this changed at all? Has the petition reached any other school administrators?

JS: I sent the petition to Dean Eldredge and Dean Rogers. I did not hear back that they could not read it, so I assume they saw it, probably after the time when the Observer asked them about it. I do believe they were able to access it since their office reached out to a colleague of mine through the Faculty Senate’s Student Life Committee to see if they might discuss it. The plans for that meeting are in the works, as I understand it. I believe I will be included in that meeting. I think the people in charge of Student Affairs know about it. I know the college deans know about it. Rafael Zapata, the Chief Diversity Officer, has heard me talk about it.

GS: With the proposal of public squares, students would be able to practice free speech at any time. But with free speech, some people tend to border or cross the line into hate speech. How would you regulate or monitor that?

JS: This is a really tough question. And a good one, by which I mean it is a question we need to be asking and need continually to keep asking. To me there is no foolproof way to stop people from crossing the line into hate speech. We will never achieve the perfect solution to this problem. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to try, especially since hate speech is so often targeted at people with so little power and thus so much vulnerability.

So, my thought on this was to cultivate a student-led and student-approved democratic system of accountability. That’s the idea behind the “honor code” and “honor council.” These would be democratic student-led institutions, with a code and mandate that gets renewed each year by student vote. Students, in other words, would be deciding together how to manage these really tough questions which, after all, are the questions that face us every day as citizens of this country.

GS: You suggest in your petition to convene a team of university members to create a more expansive and clear policy for free speech which would include both faculty and students. How would you want students and faculty to be chosen? How closely would you want both groups to work together?

JS: Another good question. I would favor an open invitation for participants. I have never been at a meeting where there were too many volunteers to do the hard, detailed work. This puts the responsibility on representatives of various interest groups and loyalties and affinities to show up. I can think of lots of folks smarter than me and with more credibility on this stuff who would do a good job leading a group like this.

GS: Do you feel that Fordham University’s base in the Catholic church—which has been known to be somewhat behind when it comes to their stances on social issues like gay marriage, birth control and the lack of female leaders within the church—has limited the university or made it harder for the university to create more progressive policy? (i.e. issues with free speech policy, lack of transgender housing, health center will not provide birth control prescriptions or other methods of birth control)

JS: From my view the official church is problematic when it comes to issues related to sex and sexuality. To the extent that Fordham administrators want to be in line with where the official church is now on these sex and sexuality issues, there will be significant challenges to progress. But the church is more than the “official church.” So, there are other Catholic ways of imagining justice and freedom, including some from within the Jesuit community, that suggest different routes. Georgetown and other Catholic universities have policies that differ from Fordham’s.

GS: The Rose Hill College Republicans invited controversial “Alt-right” people such as Ann Coulter and Roger Stone to speak at the university—people who tend to cross the line into hate speech. Do you see a difference in definitions of free speech between the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses?

JS: I don’t have enough evidence to identify a difference between the two campuses on questions of free speech and accountability.

GS: Looking to the future, how do you plan to move forward with the petition and your overall proposal to change Fordham’s policy on free speech?

JS: I hope that the petition will continue to gain signatures from all sectors of the university, including staff, students, contingent faculty, faculty and administrators. I will work to make sure that the petition and the issues it raises will receive a hearing at the level of the administrators who make policy decisions. I hope the College Councils will take it up as well as the Arts and Sciences Councils and other administrative bodies. We probably need a multipronged approach.

I will continue to work with colleagues and students and anyone else who would like to advance these issues and help me figure out ways that this can gain traction. I think we can benefit from learning and talking with one another more about these issues. Maybe the petition needs refining; I’m sure there are ways the ideas can be improved. I’ve already heard some good ideas and critiques. There are students and faculty who have invited me into their conversations and I am already learning a lot.

I think that there may be some elements that are worth tackling in the near term and others that may be more long-term goals. It may make sense to find one part of the petition, say, a change in the demonstration policy or free-speech zones, that is worth focusing on for now. If so, that could be the start of more long-term conversations about change. As always, there may be more radical tactics of pressure that need to be applied, depending on how things go. Established systems are notoriously hard to change. Usually it takes more than just asking. But if a whole lot of people get involved in this, I think we can make real progress. This is all about love for Fordham.