Forum wall prompts petition

Senior accuses SG of censorship

By Tennyson Bush and Carolina Lumetta

2.28.2020

On Feb. 19, Senior Class Co-President Joshua Franker posted a laminated notice on the forum wall in Lower Beamer stating that all anonymous posts would be taken down at the end of the day. In response, senior Leo O’Malley began collecting signatures to hold a referendum on all 2019-2020 Student Government (SG) proposals. After a day of encouraging students to join his cause in Lower Beamer and other areas of Wheaton’s campus on Thursday, O’Malley says that he now has 103 “signatures and commitments to sign.”

Franker’s notice, which was not an official SG initiative, encouraged students to take ownership of what they post on the wall. “Look to write what is edifying,” the notice said. “Please put your name and date on your posts (Posts without names are welcome but will be taken down at the end of the day).” Franker enforced this rule for three days following the post. “Any student could have done what I did. Any student can post on the forum wall or take stuff down,” he said.

The rules laid out in the notice mirror the ones suggested in a Nov. 9 SG proposal called “Standardization of the Forum Wall” in which Franker called for “continued conversations with the administration” about the forum wall.

The proposal states that anonymous posts will be taken down every evening by the nightwatch staff in Lower Beamer, and that students would be permitted to repost removed material the following day. “These rules would act as a speed bump of sorts to cause individuals to ponder inward reflection before posting,” it reads. O’Malley is concerned that elected members are misrepresenting the student body to the administration and cites the forum wall proposal as proof. The proposal was passed by SG on Nov. 20, but has not become an official school policy. After being passed, SG proposals must be signed by Student Body President Sarah Yoon. Then, they are directed to the administration as non-binding student resolutions, which may then be implemented, amended or declined. Yoon has not yet signed the proposal. Student Engagement Program Coordinator Barb Nussbaum, who oversees the nightwatch staff in Lower Beamer, confirmed that her staff was never instructed to remove anonymous forum wall posts.

According to the SG proposal, anonymous forum wall postings were once an anomaly, but are now the norm. “A simple explanation for this is the culture that the Internet has created,” it reads. “It has become normalized for individuals to hide behind screen names and speak hurtful words about groups and individuals with the expectation of no consequences.”

“The entire goal was just to create conversation,” Franker said. “There was no actual policy being enforced. I was enforcing it by myself to see conversation start. By putting something up and enacting it, I wanted to watch the student body naturally start a conversation.”

SG Staff Advisor Crystal Cartwright said that Franker’s post did not represent an official statement from SG or a change in school policy. “He was fully acting as an individual student,” she said. “According to SG guidelines, student leaders are not allowed to present their personal views as a representation of SG, but of course according to forum wall rules anyone can post as an individual student.”

O’Malley’s petition calls for all proposals passed by the current SG to be subject to referendum. According to the SG constitution, a petition signed by 10 percent of the student body automatically warrants a referendum on any policy proposal, which must then be conducted within fifteen academic days.

“The overview of the language will be the idea of a clean slate,” O’Malley said. “The student body deserves the chance to decide whether or not the current Student Government can be trusted to legislate consistently and in an ethical manner, without going behind our backs.”

“Their attempt to clamp down on the forum wall is not out of a desire to create student accountability but to suppress student voices that they don’t agree with,” O’Malley said. “We have no assurance that they’re not going to do something else without our knowledge since they have represented to the administration that the student body would be fine with these restrictions on freedom of speech.”

Other students have also expressed concern about the recent events surrounding the forum wall. Senior Holden Gilbertson agreed with O’Malley. “The only valid form of censorship is the right for people not to listen,” she said.

Student Body Vice President Nat Lewis said that the motivation behind the forum wall proposal was not to curb free speech. “We are not interested in censoring free speech, nor were we ever. We were and are trying to respond to student concerns that the forum wall is a problematic and hurtful space with efforts to make it a safer, more hospitable zone for engagement.”

Sophomore Ben Bertoni posted a reply on the forum wall disagreeing with O’Malley. “This smear against SG is not remotely accurate, much less virtuous,” he said in his written response. “This is not a restriction of free speech as O’Malley claims, but it is rather a debatable solution to a larger issue — that issue being harmful harassment to our more vulnerable communities on this campus. Taking away the individual autonomy of members of our student leadership is a more dangerous censorship than removing the forum wall.”

SG Administrative Manager Grace Tinsley said SG is aware of the need for greater communication between them and the student body. “While proposals are open to the public constitutionally, there is not an accessible system to provide them to students,” she said in an email. “We (myself and a few others on the board) are talking about possibly jump-starting an accessibility campaign to ensure greater clarity for the student body. We hope to create a space with open access to proposals and other pertinent board information.”

Information tables in Lower Beamer regarding upcoming student elections have been delayed due to the ongoing controversy. The information tables were set to begin on Wednesday, but were delayed “to maintain the peace and protect our SG members,” Public Relations Manager Riley Cunningham said at the Feb. 26 SG meeting. The tables were then scheduled for Feb. 27, but were delayed again.

O’Malley has called on students to seriously consider how changes to the forum wall rules might affect campus culture. “If we don’t stop this now, we won’t be the Harvard of Christian schools; we’ll be the UC-Berkeley of Christian schools,” O’Malley said.

Despite the controversy, Franker is grateful that the post could generate conversation regarding the role of the forum wall on campus. “I’m glad students felt comfortable to communicate their displeasure to us through the forum wall. It really does add to the conversation and continues to create a larger conversation on campus about the forum wall.”

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