free speech

Is this a turning point for universities which previously chickened out of featuring controversial speakers for graduation ceremonies?

First Miami University stood up for inviting George Will to speak, and now the University of California-Berkeley – which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement this year – is standing by its decision to have Bill Maher speak at the winter commencement.

The school said in a press release it’s ignoring a vote by the undergraduate committee that chooses speakers to disinvite Maher following outrage at his remarks on Islam:

The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. … More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.

And it’s promising students on the committee that their cowardice won’t bear fruit in the future either:

Finally, the unfortunate events surrounding the selection of this year’s winter commencement speaker demonstrate the need to develop a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies. The new process will ensure that these events are handled in a manner commensurate with our values and enduring commitment to free speech. We will be announcing the new policy as soon as it is ready.

It’s quite a reversal for UC-Berkeley, whose chancellor was roundly criticized this fall for seemingly telling students that civility trumps free speech.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is pissed, decrying in a press release “the university’s decision to disrespect students … and instead imposing its own will”:

While Mr. Maher has the right to speak whenever and wherever he likes, he does not have the right to have his hate-filled views honored and tacitly endorsed by a prestigious university.

Bill Maher, by the way, has promised to address the controversy on his Real Time HBO show on Friday.

The petition asking the school to disinvite Maher is just over 4,400 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Read the school’s full statement.

h/t CNN

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The president of San Diego State University, Elliot Hirshman, penned a laudable article for the Huffington Post about the importance of free speech on college campuses.

Now he just needs to make his own institution practice what it preaches.

Hirshman starts his piece in an odd way, implying that university policies in general uphold the principles of free speech, which is laughably naive:

Our policy on free expression at San Diego State University is similar to those at universities and colleges across the nation.

He calls it “critical to present a range of perspectives so students can understand issues and develop frameworks for thinking about these issues”:

[A]ny regulation [of speech] should “maximize opportunities, in terms of time, place and manner, for free expression.” The policy emphasizes that regulation should be “content neutral” and “all legal speech, even offensive speech, is permitted.”

Hirshman correctly notes the university has a duty to halt the heckler’s veto:

While many protesters claim that a speaker’s appearance implies that the university endorses the speaker’s views, this is not the case. We endorse the speaker’s right to express his or her views and the audience’s right to hear these views. …

If a controversial speaker comes to campus, can a group of protesters “shout down” the speaker? … Protesters can ask questions, hold up signs, present alternative speakers and express their own views. They might even shout out a phrase or two, but completely preventing an invited speaker from speaking is not within the academy’s traditions or policies.

It’s also anathema to free speech to force speech, he says:

Forcing someone to invite someone that they do not wish to invite is a restriction of their free expression and inconsistent with our traditions — even if the invitation might accomplish other beneficial objectives.

And niceness isn’t a reason to stop speech:

While there is no question that civility or politeness is very important, it is equally important to recognize that, in our American tradition, the right to freedom of expression is unrelated to civility or politeness.

So far, so good. How does San Diego State hold up?

Christians required to disavow their faith for official recognition

It’s complicated. The school draws a “yellow light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meaning it has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

The foundation specifically highlights as questionable the school’s policies on civility; student, employee and organizational harassment (including sexual harassment); and Internet use, with one policy that sounds like the Syracuse University policy under fire by its student government.

On the other hand, San Diego State get a “green light” for its policy on protests and demonstrations and a couple others on harassment (meaning they don’t “seriously imperil speech”).

There’s one giant honking red flag on San Diego State’s rap sheet, though: It has repeatedly denied recognition to a Christian fraternity and sorority because “the groups’ requirement that members share the groups’ religious beliefs violated SDSU’s nondiscrimination policy,” as the foundation wrote two years ago.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school didn’t violate the organizations’ First Amendment rights (here’s a very detailed analysis). Because the school’s policy fell under nondiscrimination and not the “all comers” policies that have essentially banished the Christian group InterVarsity from recognition in the California State University system, “the Court had an opportunity to revisit the issue altogether” but didn’t, the foundation said:

This is of course disappointing, as the Ninth Circuit’s ruling sets another precedent that imperils student rights both in that federal circuit and possibly elsewhere. …

While recognizing that the [nondiscrimination] policy burdens religious groups like the Christian fraternity and sorority here, the court found that this “incidental” burden was insufficient to prove viewpoint discrimination because the policy had not been enacted with the intent or purpose of suppressing the groups’ viewpoint. … This seems like a classic case of moving the goalposts: Per the Ninth Circuit, not only does viewpoint discrimination have to occur because of a challenged policy or regulation, the policy or regulation has to have been designed to discriminate by viewpoint.

So President Hirshman, if you want to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, you can start by letting Christian frats and sororities back on campus rather than treating them like bigots.

Greg Piper is an assistant editor at The College Fix. (@GregPiper)

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Comedian, pundit and HBO host Bill Maher is scheduled to speak at the University of California-Berkeley’s December graduation, and students are already lining up to get him disinvited, citing his controversial remarks on Islam, the Daily Californian reports:

The petition was authored by ASUC Senator Marium Navid, who is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, or MEMSA, and Khwaja Ahmed, an active MEMSA member. The petition, which urges students to boycott the decision and asks the campus to stop him from speaking, has already gathered more than 1,400 signatures as of Sunday. …

“It’s not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate,” Navid said. “The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn’t give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That’s a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don’t give him.” …

“(Jon) Stewart and (Stephen) Colbert are critical of religion, too, but Bill Maher has, on several occasions, said to rise up against religious people and religious institutions and take action,” Ahmed said.

Navid’s office launched a campaign called “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech” asking students to contact Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Helena Weiss-Duman, the director of external relations.

Read the Daily Cal article.

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One of the joys of covering college news is reading poorly written op-eds by students in their campus papers.

I’m not saying they should be composing elegant, witty and insightful essays as 18-year-olds. Maybe just that they should run their prose by a professor who can say, in the most respectful way possible, “This could be improved.”

Today’s example comes from Iowa State University’s Daily, where a student senator takes issue with the paper’s recent editorial scolding the student government for voting down a bill that would ask the administration to expand the campus free speech zone.

The editorial notes that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gives Iowa State its worst speech rating, a “red light,” for its overbroad policies on harassment and discrimination. The editorial also faults the school’s procedures for getting permission to use the free speech zone, which can require a 6-10 day wait.

Raghul_Ethiraj_largeStudent senator Raghul Ethiraj first says that FIRE’s ratings, which are based on longstanding legal precedents, have the same credibility as students bitching about their professors online:

A university cannot fire a professor by taking the reviews on seriously because of his or her ‘worst’ rating, and that it is ‘unacceptable’ to have them teach because of their rating. It is very similar to judging someone based on their GPA alone.

Um, OK. Ethiraj then makes a version of the “freedom from religion” argument that paints the First Amendment as a zero-sum game, rather than an invitation to answer bad speech with good speech:

Adam Gunther, the president of the LGBTA alliance, shared his concerns with the senate that many speakers offend and make students and others within the LGBTA community uncomfortable to an extent that they don’t feel safe on campus anymore. …

“There is a clear and personal attack on someone” said GSB LAS senator Richard Hartnett. He was referring to an incident when the speakers at the free speech zone were telling him that he would go to hell and screaming that all Delta Delta Delta sorority members were promiscuous and immoral women.

Even though we are trying to empower the people sharing their opinion through campus-wide free speech zones, it takes away the other individual’s voice who does not want to hear the conversation. …

We would hate to see students feeling harassed all across campus and appreciate the idea of having a designated high student traffic area to have such conversations for individuals and groups wanting to do so.

This is a sadly typical response in 2014, given the rise of trigger warnings, “disinvitation season” and threats or punishments against students for expressing unpopular views.

Ethiraj seems to conflate behavior that the school can regulate – physical intimidation of other people, in particular – with free expression that it really can’t as a public institution.

He says students can already express themselves freely under modest rules:

Also, no approval is necessary if anyone wishes to use outdoor spaces other than the free speech zones, if they stay at least 100 ft. away from classrooms and do so between 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. during weekdays without using amplification devices other than hand held megaphones.

This would seem to prohibit any speech that is timed to coincide with evening or weekend events – remember that a conservative activist was nearly charged with “trespassing” at Broward College because she was politicking outside an evening political debate between Florida gubernatorial candidates.

Ethiraj concludes: “We essentially did not want to fix something that was not broken.”

That “something” is apparently a college-sheltered bubble of safe, like-minded pablum that bores students into assent in public – and then drives them to anonymous forums like Yik Yak to say whatever they like without taking responsibility for it.

Greg Piper is an assistant editor at The College Fix. (@GregPiper)

Policy language should focus on ‘threats of violence, obscenity, child pornography, harassing communications’

Syracuse University students acting like jerks online – or just arguing heatedly – could be punished under school policy.

That’s because the school’s Computer and Electronic Communications Policy defines harassment as sending “annoying” or “offensive” messages to others.

The Student Association wants to clamp down on such vague and unenforceable terms. It passed a resolution earlier this month asking the school to make the harassment language more specific and concrete, according to The Daily Orange.

The request to revamp comes on the heels of a similar brouhaha over the Internet use policy at Northern Illinois University.

As The College Fix reported, a student trying to look up the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church on Wikipedia got a Web page warning that clicking through to the site would probably “violate the Northern Illinois Acceptable Use Policy.”

That policy was changed after an Internet outcry, though one administrator grumbled that the school wouldn’t be able to track “illegal activity” as well.


Zachary Greenberg, a student in the Syracuse law school and the author of the proposal, told The Daily the resolution is a good first step toward replacing vague terms, such as “annoying” and “offensive,” with “more specific language such as threats of violence, obscenity, child pornography and harassing communications as defined by law.”

In an interview with The College Fix, Greenberg said the wording of the computing policy is an imposition on students’ freedom of expression because it makes virtually all forms of electronic communication a form of harassment.

Greenberg said it’s common for universities to create policies that are meant to shield students from anything that could be deemed offensive.

“American universities should be bastions of free thought and the open exchange of ideas, including ideas that are controversial and unpopular, annoying, and even offensive,” Greenberg said.

The Syracuse policy’s broad prohibitions are far from unique among its peers, including public universities.

Kansas State University, for example, includes whistling, making kissing sounds, howling, smacking lips, and winking as “illustrative of different kinds of sexual harassment,” according to a policy last updated two years ago.

A Syracuse professor, David Rubin of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, told The Daily the policy may reflect Syracuse’s desire to play the overprotective parent and shield students from harassment of any kind.

But students need to be exposed to the “real world,” Rubin said.

Policies like those of Syracuse are a “grave harm” to the First Amendment rights of college students, Azhar Majeed, director of the Individual Rights Education Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told The College Fix in an email.

Majeed compared the computing policy’s harassment definition to “free speech zones” that limit students’ right to speak to certain areas of campus. Such policies let schools punish students for saying things that are “deemed unwanted,” he said: “To truly be the grounds for open inquiry and unfettered debate, college campuses must be free of both types of policies.”

Free speech zones have been struck down in some federal courts, including those imposed at the University of Cincinnati. Its “prior notice and permit scheme,” which stopped Young Americans for Liberty from gathering petition signatures, was ruled unconstitutional in 2012.

It’s not the first time Syracuse’s definition of harassment in the computing policy has come under fire.

The school investigated and threatened administrative proceedings against law student Len Audaer in 2010 for contributing to a satirical blog about the “goings on in the College of Law,” as Audaer later told FIRE. The school closed the harassment investigation with no charges after FIRE called it out in the Huffington Post as one of the worst schools for speech.

The civil liberties group also claimed victory in 2012 for Syracuse reinstating an expelled graduate student who had “complained on Facebook about a racially charged comment made in his presence by a community leader.”

Syracuse is currently designated a “red light” school by FIRE because the computing policy “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” It has four “yellow light” policies and one “green light” policy, according to FIRE.

Syracuse University did not respond to requests for comment from The Fix.

College Fix reporter Christopher White is a University of Missouri graduate student and an editorial assistant for The College Fix.

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IMAGES: Floyd Brown/Flickr, darkf/Reddit

Referring to a lesbian character as having a “perverse attraction to the same sex” and a “barren womb” got a student at the University of New Mexico kicked out of her film class.

A federal judge has now approved her First Amendment lawsuit against the school to go forward, the Albuquerque Journal reports, rejecting the school’s claim that professor Caroline Hinckley’s action against Monica Pompeo was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns”:

The lawsuit alleges Hinkley violated her own syllabus, which called for “open minds” to examine “representations of a plethora of genders and sexualities.” Instead, Pompeo says, Hinkley accused her of resorting to “hate speech” and refused to grade her paper. The professor also made it clear that it would be in Pompeo’s best interests not to return to the class, Pompeo alleges.

Later, Pompeo met with Hinkley’s supervisor, Susan Dever, chairwoman of the cinematic arts department. Pompeo was told that the use of “barren” was both inappropriate and offensive.

The upshot of the meeting was that Pompeo was forced to drop Hinkley’s class and instead take an independent studies class under Dever.

Oh, so it all worked out, right?

According to Pompeo’s lawsuit, however, she fared no better under Dever, who allegedly threatened her with repercussions for using certain language, specifically the word “barren.”

Judge Christina Armijo questioned whether a “university can have a legitimate pedagogical interest in inviting students to engage in ‘incendiary’ and provocative speech on a topic and then punishing a student because he or she did just that.”

Read the Journal article.

h/t Foundation for Individual Rights in Education


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