free speech

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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High school and college administrators may not eat flesh or amble as awkwardly as zombies, but a new video from the Student Press Law Center says the goal of some officials – censorship of student media – “eats brains.”

The video features zombies carrying mangled newspapers and breaking into a school newsroom, with students barricaded inside, to rip up more. It promotes the group’s Cure Hazelwood page.

The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling in 1988 diverted its path from the better-known Tinker ruling from 1969, which gave broad free-expression rights to students. Hazelwood said that schools could censor student media “so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Cure Hazelwood describes that ruling as an infection that “can strike anywhere” and infect anyone:

Symptoms include an inability to speak freely. In some cases, victims are paralyzed by intimidation.

Hazelwood started with high school kids, but it hasn’t stopped there. Once a school is infected, it goes viral.


That includes colleges in more than a dozen states, “and college students in several dozen other states are still at risk,” with only California and Illinois protecting college students “definitively” from the ruling.

The website tells students to investigate their school and district’s policies around free speech and press their state lawmakers for student speech protections, which are allowed under Hazelwood.

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IMAGE: SPLC YouTube screenshot

In a recent You.Gov poll, 51 percent of Democrats are in favor of reining in First Amendment free speech freedoms … if the speech is “hate speech.”

The shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as (progressive) college administrators are those who typically favor the establishment, and enforcement of, campus speech codes.

And these speech codes too often count as “hate speech” legitimate criticisms of topics such as affirmative action, gender issues, and immigration.

Hans Bader at Liberty Unyielding reports:

Earlier this year, U.S. Civil Rights Commission member Michael Yaki, a staunch liberal, declared that speech on college campuses, including but not limited to “hate speech,” should be restricted to protect young people’s developing brains. Yaki is a former senior advisor and district director for House Minority Leader (and former Speaker) Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). (During the Obama administration, the Education and Justice Departments have also sought to restrict students’ free speech and due process rights on college campuses and in the public schools). Yaki argued that “how the juvenile or . . . young adult brain processes information is vastly different from the way that we [older] adults do.”

Liberal bureaucrats already sometimes find that supposed “hate speech” creates an illegal racially “hostile work environment” when it occurs in the workplace, such as this recent example in North Carolina defining a dubious complaint about anti-white bias as “racial harassment.” A wide array of speech about religious, racial, and sexual topics is now being suppressed by bureaucrats and college officials under the notion that it constitutes “harassment” of listeners or contributes to a “hostile environment” for those who overhear it.

Bader goes on to point out that, at least for now, the US Supreme Court has protected free expression in the public sphere. But leftist legal academics continue attempts to circumvent the First Amendment by, among other things, claiming “offensive” speech “is at odds with ‘customary international law’ (which they define to include even treaties that the U.S. Senate has never ratified).”

Read the full article.

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IMAGE: Sam Graham/Flickr

The University of Michigan’s conservative campus paper the Michigan Review took some heat Wednesday for publishing an illustration of Athletics Director Dave Brandon’s head – without his body.

A business lecturer Tweeted to the newspaper to take it down, saying: “With current events about ISIS, drawing Brandon decapitated is violent and wrong. Remove it.” He CC’d the campus police on his Tweet.

Before I get into the image itself, let me set the stage.

On Tuesday, a massive protest engulfed the campus quad, known in those parts as the Diag. News crews – even overhead helicopter news crews – captured the scene as hundreds of students protested. And what did they want? Well, in a manner of speaking, Brandon’s head. MR

Long story short, Brandon has taken one of the most prestigious college football teams in the nation and made several fumbles with it. A petition signed by more than 10,000 students this week states as much.

As Deadspin put it: “Whether it is overseeing a crummy football team, lying about a ticket giveaway, or not firing a coach that let a concussed player back into the game, he has been a failure as Michigan’s athletic director. But you have to be a special kind of suck to inspire the same people whose main goal in life is to schedule no classes before 11 a.m. to protest you.”

At the protests, the students chanted “Fire Brandon!” in unison over and over, then led the crowd to Michigan president Mark Schlissel’s house to demonstration there.

Michigan Review editor Derek Draplin, a student journalist who also contributes to The College Fix, told me that as he and others observed the protest, it seemed to have a “mob mentality” vibe, and he and his peers even casually likened it to the angry crowds during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.”

Enter the controversial image: Brandon’s head interposed with a picture from the French Revolution, during which the guillotine was the preferred weapon of choice. They ran the eye-catching and provocative image alongside coverage of the protest.

In contrast to the offended scholar, I did not think of ISIS when I first saw the photo. I knew right away when it scrolled through my Facebook feed that they just created an image that employs hyperbole to encapsulate a current campus controversy. It’s clearly not condoning beheading or saying that’s what should be done to the athletics director.

That this illustration is akin to any editorial cartoon in a newspaper should go without saying, but in today’s world, people’s hurt feelings seem to trump free speech rights, especially on a college campus.

I contacted the scholar, Kai Petainen, an adjunct finance lecturer at the UM Ross School of Business and a contributor to Forbes, and asked him to elaborate on his concerns.

“I’m against censorship, but I’m also in favor of some common-sense and attention to the world beyond us,” he replied via email. “Within the world of education, all too often we hear of violence at schools (think of school shootings). And recently, we hear a lot about beheadings and more violence in the world around us. When it comes to matters relating to beheadings or violence (and mixing that in with school matters), then that’s not a laughing matter. Some may want Brandon to resign (I’m not commenting on that issue), but to draw an image of him decapitated is disturbing and lacks some common-sense to the worldwide issues around us. … I cc-d campus police as I like to keep them in the loop as to the things that I see.”

I thanked Petainen for his thoughtful response, but we disagree.

The picture was certainly thought-provoking, because that’s what it was supposed to be. It’s not an act of violence or aggression, nor does it even come close to the threat of violence. To imply that it does is chilling. To alert the campus police? Overkill.

Draplin, for his part, said they’re standing by the image.

“It’s just another example of the uber-sensitivity prevalent on campuses today,” he said of the complaint. But he added he has reached out to the scholar and asked him to submit a letter to the editor about his concerns.

Jennifer Kabbany is editor of The College Fix (@JenniferKabbany)

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