Misunderstandings of the Principles of Community

The Principles of Community are important for Virginia Tech. Unfortunately many students don’t know what they are. I have even heard students say they are nothing more than “a paper on the wall.” I wanted to take the opportunity to express my views of why the Principles of Community are important. I do so around some common misunderstandings that I have heard uttered on campus about these principles. The Principles of Community are available on the web at http://www.vt.edu/diversity/principles-of-community.html.

The Principles of Community are commonly confused with freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution. As US citizens we have the right to express our opinion, point of view, art, etc. in many different forms of expressions, speech, writings, creating movies, etc. This right is recognized under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and many countries have similar recognition of this right.

If we are guaranteed freedom of expression, why do we need Principles of Community? We need them because the Principles of Community go beyond the individual right to express an opinion. The principles stated in the Principles of Community document clearly recognize that we live and work in communities, not in isolation. In addition, the Principles of Community implicitly recognize that we (as humans) do not have a good record at living with each other. Racism, genocide, and many other forms of discrimination throughout human history have caused tremendous damage to others, in particular to people who live in close proximity to us, people who are all part of the same community. Therefore, the Principles of Community try to find a balance between the individual right of freedom of expression and the rights that we all have when we live in a community.

The Principles of Community promote mutual respect, dignity, and understanding. Note that these three ideals might very easily be in conflict with freedom of expression. I can, legally, express opinions that are offensive to others or that describe others in ways that robs them of their dignity. These acts, while protected by the Constitution, are not promoted by the Principles of Community. Again, the our individual rights must be balance with a deep recognition that we live together in a community. We might “control” our behavior, even curtail our freedom of speech a bit to ensure that we recognize the inherent dignity in all human beings.

That is not to say that the principles of community are intended to restrict our freedom of expression. As a matter of record, the principles affirm “the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely.” However, the principles set the expectation that we behave in a way that creates a climate that is welcoming to all. Coincidentally, this idea is clearly expressed in the Hokies Respect campaign (http://www.hokiesports.com/respect/). We have all seen the ads, the stickers, and Frank Beamer talking in the jumbotron during the games. We respect the opponents; they are welcome to our stadium. In my opinion, the Hokies Respect campaign is the best example of the Principles of Community that I have seen on campus. The sad truth is that we apply this to people from other universities when they visit Lane Stadium more than we apply it to other members of our own community.

Who enforces the Principles of Community? Students have asked me this several times. If a student cheats in an exam, they violate the Honor Code and will have some very clear consequences (case raised in the Honor Court, for example). Do this several times and you might face even more dire consequences. The question is then, who watches for violations to the Principles of Community? And what happens if someone violates the principles? There is no office on campus in charge of them. Instead it is the community that is in charge. We should not condone any behavior that is offensive to any member of the community. We all share the collective commitment to uphold these principles. Recently President Steger issued a statement reiterating that we must uphold the Principles of Community. He indicated that SafeWatch, the Office for Equity and Inclusion or the Dean of Students office should be contacted if you experience or witness a bias-related incident.

What do we do when someone crosses the line? First of all, we have to understand what line we are talking about. If it is the freedom of expression line, we simply recognize they have that right and let them be. But if in the process of expressing their opinion, they insult other members of the community, then the Principles of Community gives us all the right to call them out. We all have the right to say, "we don't want this type of language/behavior in our community." Each of us has that right, the constitution gives it to us. But as a community, we have the right to protect the dignity, integrity, and respect of each other that we want in our community.

In closing, at the heart of understanding the Principles of Community is understanding the difference between individual rights and community rights. The constitution gives each of us the right to say many things, including hateful things. However, that doesn’t make it right (i.e., correct) for any of us to abuse those privileges by insulting or attacking others. And if someone does, the community has the right (i.e., moral obligation, collective commitment) to call them out. In my opinion, the Principles of Community at Virginia Tech are important because they clearly and explicitly bring out the distinction between those three rights.

This column was published in the Collegiate Times online version on September 30, 2009. It is included here in its orginal form just for references purposes.

Posted on 10/03/2009



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