Thursday, June 11, 2009

What the buck(nell)? 

A group of conservative students on a college campus decide to create a flier to hand out to other students. To attract attention to it, they shape it like money. In place of a dead president they put a live one, in fact the fellow currently holding the job. On the back they make their point: "Obama's stimulus plan makes your money as worthless as monopoly money." It helps that the acronym for this group, the Bucknell University Conservatives Club, sounds like a slang term for a dollar bill. They start to pass them out, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) tells us what happened next.
Bucknell administrator Judith L. Mickanis approached the students and told them that they were "busted," that they were "soliciting" without prior approval, and that their activity was equivalent to handing out Bibles.

The students protested, but despite the fact that Bucknell's solicitation policy explicitly covers only sales and fundraising materials, Mickanis insisted via e-mail that prior permission was needed to pass out any materials"anything from Bibles to other matter."

"Distributing protest literature is an American free-speech tradition that dates to before the founding of the United States," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. "And why is Bucknell so afraid of students handing out �Bibles [or] other matter' that might provide challenging perspectives? Colleges are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, but Bucknell is betraying this ideal."

As is always the case on this blog, I point out that as a private university Bucknell can decide whatever they want on what can be handed out and what cannot by students. FIRE collects and posts a university's statements on free speech to its students, and for Bucknell they note this passage from the 2008-09 Student Handbook.
Freedom of speech here is understood not to be absolute: it must be integrated with other protections provided for the community in the Code of Conduct (such as the right to be free from harassment) and it must concord with the principles embodied in the Pledge of Student Responsibility. For example, the individual who directs epithets or threats at another cannot claim immunity under a perceived right of absolute free speech.
It should be noted that this statement parallels a statement on academic freedom that includes another qualifier (that academic freedom does not include the freedom to plagiarize.) That construction tells me that the writers of this student handbook meant there to be both academic freedom and free expression with provisions against unreasonable use of those terms (in their eyes.) So the question is whether or not it's unreasonable to think a student group can make a handout to give others that questions any social issue.

FIRE's press release goes on to discuss suppression by Bucknell of BUCC's attempts to hold an "affirmative action bake sale." While I don't find these sales to be particularly effective vehicles, Bucknell's prior censorship of the event intrigues me. Many women's groups use a candy bar handed out as a way of highlighting their perceived injustices in the rates of pay for men and women. Would Bucknell deny its Women's Center the right to hold such an event?

But it gets worse. Bucknell's administrators go so far as to require BUCC's free speech rights to take a particular form:
BUCC members filed an application to hold the same [bake sale] event two weeks later, but were then told that they would have to obtain the permission of the Dean of Students to hold a "controversial" event. No such permission is required by Bucknell policy. When the students nevertheless attempted to get this special permission, [Assoc. Dean of Students Gerald] Commerford rejected the request. In a recorded conversation, Commerford said that such a bake sale would violate Bucknell's nondiscrimination policy, even with satirical recommended (not actual) pricing, and that the only event he would approve on the topic would be a debate in a different forum altogether. This novel restriction also does not exist among Bucknell's official policies.

"Using this absurd logic, Bucknell would have to require its College Democrats to say nothing political on campus unless they give equal time to Republican candidates at their events, or its Catholic Campus Ministry to remain silent about abortion unless it holds a debate and invites pro-choice activists to speak at its events," Kissel said. "While students are free to host debates, they must not be required to provide a platform for their ideological opponents. Rather, those opponents must be free to spread their own messages and host their own events."

Bucknell's fear is that some student's discomfort with a conservative viewpoint will become vociferous, vile and potentially violent. So it tries to prevent that. But it has a student handbook that requires its students to sign a pledge of respect ALL other students:
As a member of the social community, I will respect individual differences and the rights of all others. I understand that bias on the basis of gender, handicapped status, national origin, race, religious belief, or sexual orientation, whether expressed in word or action, is repugnant, and that Bucknell will not tolerate harassment, discrimination, or violence against any person for any reason.
Is it as willing to enforce this against students who don't like cookies or funny money as it appears to be against conservative students?