Vanderbilt announces updates to Freedom of Expression policy in Student Handbook

Vanderbilt University has updated its Freedom of Expression policy—a vital part of the university’s commitment to open discourse, discovery and learning—to strengthen civil and respectful discussion and debate of challenging ideas and beliefs among the campus community. The revised policy and guidelines, which are in the “Student Engagement” section of the university’s Student Handbook, also clarify the university’s policy on various forms of free expression such as demonstrations, dissents and protests.  

The project began late last summer as part of a regular review of Vanderbilt policies and guidelines. Early steps in the process included a comprehensive assessment of how Vanderbilt’s freedom of expression policy compared with those of its peer institutions. As a result of that assessment, the Office of the Dean of Students revised the policy. In addition, the revisions were made partly in response to questions and concerns from students, according to G.L. Black, vice provost for student affairs and dean of students.   

“We hope to improve our support for various forms of student expression with these updates,” Black said. “Vanderbilt’s campus, like others, should be a proving ground where ideas can be tested and conventional wisdom challenged. Students are partners in this endeavor and in contributing to an orderly and civil exchange of diverse ideas and opinions.”   

The policy notes that “demonstrations, dissents and protests are a necessary and valued form of expression” and that organizers, as well as those participating in these events, are responsible for knowing and following university policies.   

While the Office of the Dean of Students has served in an informal advisory role for student-organized demonstrations and protests for many years, the written guidelines include timelines and specific steps for student groups to follow when planning a demonstration or protest. Student organizers are asked, when possible, to submit requests to hold a demonstration or protest at least 48 hours prior to the planned activity to ensure its successful execution. Black gave the example of recent demonstrations that involved students crossing 21st Avenue South. His office worked with the Vanderbilt University Police Department to have traffic stopped briefly so that students could cross the traffic-filled street safely.    

“We have updated expectations based on our practices and experiences,” Black said. “Our priorities include maintaining an environment that is as safe as possible for our students and helping the Vanderbilt community comply with university policy and city, state and federal laws when engaging in demonstrations and protests. While we can’t anticipate every scenario that could arise, these updates are also intended to communicate actions that might be deemed problematic.” 

An important addition to the guidelines is the recommendation for students to have a “debrief” with the Dean of Students staff after a demonstration or protest to review successes and challenges for future planning. Black said that his office values this opportunity for increased engagement on student activities that are critical to the principles of open community and inquiry, nondiscrimination and civility.