Over the past several weeks, our campus community has been deeply troubled by harmful speech outside on North Campus. A person unaffiliated with Salem State University has been visiting to espouse language similar to what the city of Salem witnessed in recent years from a small group of anti-LGBTQIA+ individuals who proselytize downtown. These hateful words are particularly challenging on our public campus, which carries Freedom of Speech protections similar to those of a public street yet serves as a place that our students call home – where we want them to learn, thrive, and grow.
I want to make clear that I unequivocally denounce this harmful language. This person’s views are contrary to our values as a campus, and we stand in solidarity with students, faculty, staff, administrator, and alumni who identify as LGBTQIA+, women, and everyone who has experienced emotional distress as a result of this person’s presence.
I am upset that this person has caused emotional harm to our students, especially during a semester in which they were finally returning to a routine that resembled normal after being largely remote last year. I am also troubled to see one of the foundations of our democracy – the First Amendment – being used to voice intolerance as we strive to be an inclusive community. Unfortunately, we are not alone, as this individual has brought his hateful views to other public campuses in Massachusetts, and we have been in regular communication with these institutions on approaches for addressing this difficult situation.
As this speaker is acting within the law and has complied with additional requirements our campus has imposed, we are focusing our efforts on supporting Salem State’s students. So far, this support has taken the shape of small group discussions with students and administrators; continued affinity group gatherings and celebrations of LGBTQIA+ rights; a survey seeking more information about which supports are sought; and engaging our campus in advocating for an end to the LGBTQ “panic” defense in the commonwealth (S.956, H1470). The latter effort resulted in more than 80 postcards being sent to state legislators last week, allowing many of us to channel our discontent over this speaker’s words toward making change.
The presence of this uninvited visitor has also prompted us to prioritize updates to our freedom of speech policy. We have since instituted a 72-hour notice required of all individuals who wish to hold such displays on our campus. This notice allows our university to plan for these displays in a way that supports our students and optimizes safety, ensuring that personnel are on site when needed. Safety is my top priority as president, and it is at the forefront of every decision I make. After strong words were exchanged at a recent visit, we began utilizing a buffer zone out of an abundance of caution.
University leadership engages in daily conversations – with others and among ourselves – on how we can address the impact of this person on our campus. Most importantly, we are soliciting the voices of our students and working to provide the support that they need. This certainly will not be the last instance of harmful speech any of us witnesses, and we as a campus are learning about how we can respond in a way that is supportive, drives needed change, and does not empower those with messages of intolerance.
Salem State strives to be a welcoming and inclusive community. We are challenged by this situation, but not deterred. We will not let this person’s hateful rhetoric succeed in dividing us as a campus. We will stand up to these harmful views today and whenever we encounter them in the future, and we will be stronger for it.
John D. Keenan is the 14th president of Salem State University.