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Faculty Senate Passes Resolution Supporting Free Speech

A protest was held on campus Saturday in support of queer students’ right to freedom os speech. Photo by Bailey Barnett.

Tech’s Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution requesting that university president Phil Oldham reaffirm Tech’s policy on freedom of speech and expression.

The resolution comes from the Faculty Senate at the request of the Backdoor Playhouse’s artistic director, Dr. Mark Creter, who says that actions from recent controversy have placed targets on the backs of student organizations.

“I have mostly held my tongue in the hopes that it would blow over as ‘controversial’ things so often do in this day and age of social media outrage. I make the following statement not to refute the statement released by President Oldham — the president is my boss, and he absolutely has the right and responsibility to comment on any and all events that happen on his campus — but as a 30-year member of the faculty of Tennessee Tech and resident of Cookeville, as well as a man who has spent more time in the Playhouse than anyone on this campus, it is also my right and responsibility to comment on this latest event.”

The event, regarding a minute-long social media clip at a drag performance on campus, garnered attention from Robby Starbuck, a Tennessee politician, who berated the university and its administration for “allowing” such an event to take place.

Oldham responded, saying all events by the student organizations involved are canceled indefinitely pending an “investigation.”

Creter said the Backdoor Playhouse has put on many shows, both hated and loved by many, including Rocky Horror Show, Chicago, Midnight Summer’s Dream and the Vagina Monologues.

“All the beloved shows had critics and all the difficult shows had ardent fans. That is the nature of live theater and live performance,” he said. “It engages, pleases, and often, enrages audiences — or to put it more simply, it makes you feel things. The recent reactions to a one-minute clip from a two-hour drag show performed in the Backdoor Playhouse has left me disturbed and dismayed. How can a one-minute clip inspire such anger and resentment?”

Some have said they view Oldham’s statement as an attack on freedom of speech and expression on campus and criticize him for his passiveness in regard to other issues.

One faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous, said Oldham’s statement breaks state law and university policy which guarantees freedom of speech for students and student groups.

“This university is beset by scandal and lawsuits by faculty and students because of university policy not being followed by administration, and this is just the latest example,” they said. 

“In the past, this president has consistently refused to issue statements in support of minority student groups to affirm their safety during times of increased threat against them,” another faculty member said. “Now, when he finally does make an official statement, it is the furthest thing from protecting or supporting students’ safety and rights.”

Following Oldham’s statement, Creter said that he is trying to be there for his students, who are shaken by the anger and vitriol coming their way. 

The resolution passed by the Faculty Senate reaffirms the student organizations’ rights to invite guest artists to the Backdoor Playhouse and calls Oldham to restore such rights as provided in Policy 007 rights to all Tech student groups “in an equitable and expedient manner.”

Many critics of Oldham’s statement also have raised concern over the issue of diversity and inclusion.

Dr. Robert Owens, Tech’s chief diversity officer, said he spoke with Oldham regarding the official statement that has drawn much criticism, but he said he does not see it as a diversity and inclusion issue, but rather a student affairs issue.

“I still view things from the student affair professional lens,” he said. “I’ve served as faculty advisor for many organizations, primarily Greek organizations. I have shut down events before, even for student groups that serve underrepresented or marginalized students.”

Owens said the difference in the controversy in question is that it surrounds the LGBTQIA+ community and the amount of sensitivity around the issue.

“I think this has become a huge situation because of the sensitivity around diversity and inclusion,” he said. “I talked to Oldham out of concern that this does not become a freedom of speech issue, and that the student organizations in question will still have their rights – and they are.”

“We also have the right as administrators, especially the president or the vice president of student affairs, to pause all activities in question to talk about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else, but in this particular situation it means we’re going to have some conversations about this.”

Owens said he understands students’ frustrations, especially as a student advocate.

“One of the things I was watching, the following week after all this happened, I was excited to see some of the student groups in question. They had a table on the first floor of the RUC. It was heavily populated,” he added. “There was chalk art all the plaza and in front of Derryberry Hall. It was good and we want to see those things.”

Owens is in support of every student on campus and every student organization.

He added that during times of controversy such as this, when people are looking for statements to be made, statements are what people get wrapped in.

“I’m not saying the president was right or wrong,” he said. “I support our president, but I also support our students. As a person of color, I’m more about: ‘What are we doing at the institution to progress diversity and inclusion?’ Yes, statements need to be made in some context, but our passions and emotions rise and fall with a statement. The actions are what tell the tale.”