New site helps students understand rights, responsibilities on bias, free speech

November 18, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new website designed over the past year by student leaders from a wide variety of student organizations offers important background and resources for students on bias and free expression on campus, and the critical issues surrounding the rights and responsibilities of exercising free speech.

Addressing Bias: Rights, Responsibilities and Responses,” a project of the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, is designed to be a resource for students as they exercise their own free expression thoughtfully, responsibly and respectfully. Fourteen student organizations came together to build the website, tapping on University expertise from the Office of Educational Equity, Student Affairs, Faculty Affairs, the Office of General Counsel, Faculty Senate, and WPSU.

“Dialogue and debate are the keystones of our government and our society,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “As our nation has become more polarized, it’s important that we protect our ability to have respectful disagreements and engage with different ideas. This is especially true on our college campuses. I couldn’t be prouder of our student organization leaders for recognizing the importance of these issues and putting together this resource for the good of our community.”

Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity, said his office was happy to help facilitate the project with the student organizations.

“Our students spent over a year on this project, and I’m very pleased to see that the project is relevant and impactful, and it should have a positive effect on our campus climate,” Whitehurst said. “This is an important resource for our university community, and I hope it will help our students understand more about these important issues, and how they can thoughtfully and responsibly exercise their rights.”

The Addressing Bias site is divided into five different sections. The “What is bias and why should I care?” portion of the website offers advice and action steps for students who have witnessed or have been the victim of bias. Like the rest of the website, there are bias scenarios that students or others may have questions about should something occur. Each scenario includes possible actions students can take, such as working with faculty to address bias in the classroom, as well as links to reporting resources and applicable Penn State policies. 

The next section on the website focuses on encounters with law enforcement and offers specific scenario-based tips on how to interact with authorities. It answers questions such as “Can a police officer approach me in public when I haven’t done anything wrong?” and “Can I record video of my or other people’s interactions with police?”

The How does the First Amendment apply to me?” section helps explain the differences between protected and unprotected speech and what, if any, recourse is available to them if they’re the victim of online trolling, find offensive flyers posted on campus, or are purposely provoked. This section also highlights if the University can place restrictions on speech, and when speech is considered threatening and not protected by the Constitution.

“I hope that this website will allow students to be more informed about free expression at a public institution, like Penn State,” said Joaquim Diego Santos, a junior who serves as the Eberly College of Science Academic Representative and Academic Affairs Committee Chair for the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), one of the organizations behind the website. “Penn State is a campus that welcomes diverse thought and culture. I believe that this website will educate students about the current policies in place and how those apply to their day-to-day life.”

The section of the website devoted to academic freedom calls it “an elusive concept … defined differently by faculty, the courts, and institutions of higher education.” At Penn State, like other academic institutions, academic freedom is defined in policy (AC 64), along with related rights and responsibilities when pursuing academic endeavors. Scenarios on the website tie the concept of academic freedom back to free expression and the possibility for bias, with questions about differences of opinion in the classroom and what one should do when classroom discourse makes them uncomfortable.

The “What it’s Like” page is best viewed after reading through other portions of the website, but it also can be powerful on its own, according to the website creators. The page features 24 videos of Penn State students from varying backgrounds discussing their personal experiences with bias, growth, self-discovery and adjustment to college life at Penn State.

“This website is for everyone; people who would like to learn more about bias and those who have experienced bias,” said Latisha Franklin, a Ph.D. student who is president of the Black Graduate Students Association. “Penn State has students who come from various backgrounds and even highly trained and skilled people can be biased. Patience and the willingness to learn using sites like this are the best ways to combat bias.”

While the site was designed with content identified by students and with students in mind, it can be a helpful resource for faculty and staff as well. In fact, Whitehurst said, the group is exploring the addition of content specifically for University employees.

Over time, the site will be updated with new scenarios that are relevant to the national and campus dialogue, as well as more videos, sharing the personal perspectives of students who have grappled with issues of bias and free expression.

“This website supports our collective responsibility to hold one another accountable,” said senior Fatima Odebisi, president of Black Caucus. “We are all in this community. Therefore, we all set the tone for what is acceptable when we interact with one another.”  

The following student organizations were involved in the creation of Addressing Bias:

  • Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus
  • Black Caucus
  • Black Graduate Student Association
  • Black and Latino Male Empowerment Group
  • Black Student Union
  • Council of Commonwealth Student Government
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Commemoration Committee
  • Graduate and Professional Student Association
  • International Student Council
  • Latino Caucus
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
  • Presidential Leadership Academy
  • University Park Undergraduate Association
Last Updated November 19, 2019