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October 24, 2003 [feather]
Censorship at Roger Williams

At Roger Williams University, censorship is alive and well. Here's a memo the university president sent to everyone at the school:

October 9, 2003

To: The University Community

From: Roy J. Nirschel, Ph.D.

Re: Free Expression, Civility and Mutual Respect

Roger Williams University is committed to intellectual inquiry and discourse. Among our core values is a celebration of the liberal arts, service, a global perspective and respect for the individual. Inherent within these core values is the affirmation of free expression as well as civility and mutual respect.

In recent days, a publication of a student-funded organization has crossed seriously over the lines of propriety and respect. In the past, this organization has flirted with racist and anti-Islamic rhetoric. The most recent issue of their publication, the Hawks Right Eye, is pornographic in nature, puerile, mean spirited and stereotypes gay individuals as child molesters, criminals or deviants. The views expressed therein do not represent the viewpoint of the Republican Party or most individual members of the party.

While we affirm the right of campus organizations to hold different points of view and to disagree, the university will not condone publications that create a hostile environment for our students and community.

Roger Williams continues to believe in respect for diversity of opinion and a civil exchange of views as well as respect for individuals regardless of their beliefs, backgrounds, or orientation. As an institution whose namesake preached, for his time, inclusiveness and respect for human dignity, we are a university too busy for hate.

Apparently, President Nirschel and Co. are also too busy to understand their obligation to the law. After publicly singling out the school's one conservative student publication as an exemplar of "hate," the school froze the group's funding, and thus effectively shut the publication down. That's viewpoint discrimination, pure and simple. There is even a Supreme Court ruling on the subject--in 1995, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that the school had violated the First Amendment when it denied funding to a campus evangelical newspaper because of its viewpoint. But administrators who are too busy for hate don't have time to make sure their efforts to stomp it out are actually constitutional. FIRE publishes a free guide explaining how the First Amendment affects the funding of student groups and explaining, too, how even private universities such as Roger Williams are obligated to fulfill their contractual obligations to students. If a private school presents itself as committed to free inquiry and open expression--as this one does--then it is committing fraud when it stoops, as this school did, to censorship to suppress offensive views. It would behoove President Nirschel to take some time out of his busy schedule to read FIRE's guide. Among other things, it might help him realize that by chilling expression on his campus he is the one who is promoting a hostile, discriminatory environment--not the students who write for The Hawk's Right Eye.

So what exactly did the paper publish that was so offensive? Strictly speaking, it doesn't matter. But in the interests of complete coverage, I'll summarize (for more detail, read the editor's account and the coverage in The Providence Journal). The paper criticized the school's decision to force incoming freshmen to attend a "diversity" talk delivered by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard. It also criticized the talk itself, which advocated for hate crime legislation and which accused organized religion of being a bastion of intolerance. Both are legitimate criticisms: the school should not be making new students attend political harangues as part of their orientation; there are legitimate arguments to be made against hate crime legislation and reasonable defenses to be made of organized religion. The Hawk's Right Eye endorses the view that homosexuality is wrong. That is its right. It also employs a deliberately inflammatory rhetorical style to make its views known. That is also its right, and it is one routinely exercised, with no trouble at all, by more politically correct student groups across the country. If people on the Roger Williams campus disagree with the views expressed in the paper or with the paper's rhetorical style, they should respond in kind--by expressing their views and arguing with those put forth by The Hawk's Right Eye.

Unfortunately, it sounds as if President Nirschel's actions foreclosed on that civil possibility, and instead licensed members of the campus community to harass and threaten campus conservatives. In a letter (scroll down) to President Nirschel, Monique Stuart, Executive Director of the Roger Williams University College Republicans, explains:

You claim that žthe university will not condone publications that create a hostile environment for our students and community.Ó ›Are the College Republicans excluded from that? ›It is you, who with this very publication of your own, that has created a hostile environment for every member of the club or anyone who associates with members. ›In this effort to calm the situation, which didnŪt even become volatile until you alerted the campus, you have only inflamed the matter.

My roommates have been harassed and have to fear for their safety because your letter gave free reign to everyone on campus to lash out against the College Republicans. ›You set the example that it is okay to treat us negatively because you stepped over the line and did it yourself. Through your actions you have shown your contempt and disapproval of us; you the rest of the community free reign to demonstrate their disapproval and seek actions that they deem fit to vent.

Other members of the club have been physically harassed and verbally threatened. All members have become fair game to be ridiculed and degraded in class. ›Many students feel that there is no need to respect us because the president of the school doesnŪt. ›Mutual respect is nonexistent for our club. ›This is the hostile environment that you have created, not us.

These are uncorroborated assertions--but they are not very hard to believe.

Meanwhile, school administrators have agreed to restore the paper's funding--but only if students agree to have the paper "reviewed" by an advisor before it goes to print. Somehow I don't think that a thinly veiled policy of prior restraint is going to work. I also don't think that the school's newfound commitment to defining formal standards for civil campus discussion will do anything more than create endless additional problems. Speech codes usually do.

Thanks to Reginleif for the tip.

UPDATE 10/30/03: Eugene Volokh has taken up the Roger Williams case, arguing that the college's decision to defund the paper doesn't make sense even according to its own stated logic.

posted on October 24, 2003 12:30 PM