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Universities become censorship zones - 11/18/03
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Tuesday, November 18, 2003
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Until this summer, the gazebo at Texas Tech University in Lubbock,
Texas, was the only area on campus where students were allowed to
give speeches, demonstrate and hand out pamphlets. Two groups
sued the university policy as an illegal restriction on student speech.
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By Greg Lukianoff / Special to The Detroit News
For those who still believe America's
colleges and universities treasure free
speech, I would like to introduce
Texas Tech University's "free speech
gazebo." It is only 20 feet in diameter,
but, up until this summer, it was the
sole area on campus where Tech's
28,000 students could demonstrate,
make speeches and pamphleteer
without giving the university six days'
advance notice.
The Foundation for Individual Rights
in Education (FIRE) and the Alliance
Defense Fund launched a legal
challenge to Tech's speech policies
last June, as part of FIRE's assault on
speech codes nationwide. In response,
the university added larger "free
speech zones." However, the policy
Student newspapers
stolen in Michigan
Students newspapers have
been taken at several
* Almost all of the 1,400
copies of the Michigan
Journal, a student weekly
at the University of
Michigan at Dearborn,
were stolen in April 2003.
* On both Feb. 3 and Feb.
5, 2003, 3,000 copies of
The Eastern Echo, the
student newspaper of
Eastern Michigan
University, were stolen.
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Universities become censorship zones - 11/18/03
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said almost all of the
now bans any speech that might
newspaper bins on
"cause reasonable apprehension" or
campus were emptied, but
"psychological harm" if it is
expressed with the intent of
not off-campus distribution
"humiliating, demeaning or degrading sites.
any member of the university
* In February 2000, 100 to
150 newspapers from a
This broad and vague policy is almost press run of 2,000 were
certainly unconstitutional at a public
stolen at Lake Superior
university and could be used to ban
State University.
anything from pro-life protests to anti- Source: Student Press Law
Bush activism, to virtually any form
of satire or parody.
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Texas Tech seems to be saying it will
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fight for every inch of repression of
free speech allowed under the law.
This is no way for an institution ostensibly devoted to free inquiry to
behave. Speech codes and speech zones that turn most of the campus
into censorship zones -- which are common in academia -- teach
students that free speech is at best a joke and at worst a menace.
Students have been learning that lesson well for years. A spring 2002
New York Times article titled, "Debate? Dissent? Don't Go There!"
explored the growing perception that college students are more guarded
about their views than students of previous generations. The author
presented potential causes, including the unifying effect of September
11, disgust with partisan politics, the uncivil debates on cable news
programs and simple politeness.
But there was no mention that students know that they may be punished
for exercising their basic constitutional rights on campus.
Today's students know they can be arrested for trespassing if they
protest outside the speech zones. This happened recently at both Florida
State University and California's Citrus College, among other schools.
Students know that they can be brought up on charges for publishing
satire, because this happened at the University of California San Diego,
Stetson University and Tufts University, among other schools.
Students know that they can be punished for merely criticizing the
administration, because this happened at Harvard Business School,
Shaw University, Hampton University and SUNY Suffolk during the
last year. They may also be aware that most colleges, probably even
their own, have speech codes that ban clearly protected expression.
In Michigan, students surely know that they can be forced to take down
signs supporting the war on terrorism if administrators deem such
postings "offensive" because this happened at Central Michigan
University in the wake of September 11. Other students in Michigan
may know of Professor John Bonnell, who has been repeatedly
disciplined for using graphic language in his literature class at Macomb
County Community College in Warren.
And students are probably aware of the legacy of the University of
Michigan's infamous speech code, which banned speech that
"stigmatizes or victimizes" other students on the basis of "ancestry,"
"creed" and other categories. They may also have heard of Central
Michigan University's code that banned "demeaning or slurring
individuals." Both policies were ruled unconstitutional by federal courts
in the late 1980s and early '90s.
The phenomenon of "free speech areas" perhaps best represents the
attitude toward free speech on many campuses: Free expression will be (2 of 3) [7/22/2004 11:25:57 PM]
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Universities become censorship zones - 11/18/03
tolerated, but grudgingly, and only when it is agreeable, tightly
controlled and strictly regulated. These tiny censorship zones exist or
have existed at dozens of institutions, such as Western Illinois
University, West Virginia University, University of Nebraska at
Omaha, University of Houston and University of Alabama.
With so many schools showing such hostility to expression, where are
students supposed to learn to value freedom of speech? They won't
learn it in their classes where students apparently do not feel
comfortable expressing their opinions. They won't learn it through their
student activities, which are tightly regulated and controlled.
They are even unlikely to learn respect for free speech from their fellow
students. There is the continuing problem of students stealing and
destroying newspapers to repress viewpoints that they dislike. More
than five dozen examples have been documented by FIRE and the
Student Press Law Center.
If this mob censorship represents this generation's attitude toward free
speech, we should all be worried.
The way to free up repressive campuses and censorship-happy students
is complex and involves more than just defeating speech codes,
eliminating censorship zones and reinvigorating academic freedom. For
the sake of future generations, we must educate the current generation
about the value of free speech, not just about its perceived "down side."
People who believe in free speech on campus must stop feeling they
need to apologize for those beliefs. The messy, chaotic and, yes,
sometimes offensive nature of a college campus that embraces free
speech should not be feared. It should be celebrated as proof of our
society's diversity, passion and vitality.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the director of legal and public
advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in
Philadelphia. Send letters to mailto:[email protected]
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