Staff Editorial: President Burwell’s panel on free expression expressed values and principles, but not much else

AU administration promotes free expression on campus but continues to suppress student media groups, other community members

 Staff Editorial: President Burwell’s panel on free expression expressed values and principles, but not much else


American University President Sylvia Burwell held a panel on free expression and the updated Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct policy on Feb. 1, along with other university heads from across the country. Burwell and her fellow panelists spent the majority of the event discussing values like inclusion and diversity, but the message fell flat — ultimately seeming more like a PR move appealing to donors than true sentiment on expanding free expression across campus. 

Panelists discussed the responsibility for university leaders to foster spaces for respectful dissent and ideas like including speaker events to cultivate debate. However, such a platform already exists on AU’s campus, led not by University administration, but by faculty and supported by student organizations.  

The Project on Civil Discourse, based out of the School of Public Affairs, does exactly what the panelists, including the current AU president, called for. This begs the question: is Burwell so far out of the loop that she is calling for programs that already exist to be created on campus? If the point of the discussion was to promote the idea to other universities across the country, why was the Project on Civil Discourse not brought up as a positive example of how AU contributes to such an “inclusive and differentiated” environment?

The existence of the event altogether is somewhat unusual. AU’s freedom of expression policy was updated in August of 2022. This event centered around that policy was held in February of the following year, almost six months later. Events hosted by Burwell are relatively few and far between, and the choice to focus so strongly on this topic is somewhat perplexing. This discussion on free expression in such abstract and empty ways seems to be less important to students compared to the litany of other current issues on campus and around the world.   

AU’s promotion of its updated policy through this event seems hypocritical when considering student groups that are often suppressed by the University. 

The updated policy has a section dedicated to journalistic freedom, which states, “student journalists and news organizations associated with the University [are free] to pursue their journalistic missions without outside interference and in accordance with recognized standards of journalistic excellence.”

The irony of this quote and the reality for AU’s student journalists is startling. Student reporters contacting the University for information often get stonewalled or severely delayed, regardless of the information they seek. A new process announced by the University to student media groups last semester requires student media organizations to fill out a form with what information they are asking for rather than being able to directly contact individuals they wish to talk to. After that, reporters must wait for another University official to coordinate scheduling between them and the person they want to interview, and sometimes reporters never receive an interview altogether. 

After more than a semester of going through this process, The Eagle has seen this significantly slow down our reporting compared to previous years. Even students outside of student media groups working on class assignments find AU nearly impossible to receive comments from in a timely manner. 

It seems that when it comes to free expression by the student press, AU often interferes with students’ expressive abilities. Intentionally or not, the lack of cooperation of the University toward student media contributes to a suppression of free speech — especially speech that must be made in a timely manner.  

When examining this event and the policies Burwell chooses to publicly promote, students — especially those within student media — continue to question the sincerity and purpose behind what is discussed and what remains unaddressed. Moving forward, the University and its leadership need to reexamine their strained relationships with the student body and address the barriers they create for students’ freedom of expression. 

This article was edited by Nina Heller. Copyediting by Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Luna Jinks, Leta Lattin and Natasha LaChac.

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