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December 6, 2005 [feather]
Enough! Or too much

When it comes to respecting students' civil liberties, university administrators are having a particularly bad run lately.

Hampton University threatened to expel a group of students for distributing anti-Bush literature, and only sort of backed down when FIRE pointed out that punishing students for expressing their views in a manner that is fully covered by the First Amendment is inconsistent with the university's claims to "be a champion of free speech and free expression." Hampton is sticking to its claim--but it is also still penalizing the students by requiring them to perform community service to atone for the sin of handing out flyers.

Marquette University has suspended a dental student for posting critical comments about his classmates and one of his professors (all unnamed) on his blog. The student declined to sign an "admission of guilt," which would have obligated him to go on academic probation, to apologize to his classmates, and to enter counseling for both his negative attitude and for the alcohol problem administrators believed they could diagnose by reading his blog. Now, if he wants to return to dental school, he must repeat the fall semester (at a cost of $14,000), enter counseling, and apologize publicly to his class. He must also return a $5,000 scholarship he received from Marquette. The student has retained a lawyer, and has deleted his blog.

And at Bellarmine University, students understand the importance of free speech but professors don't. One Bellarmine student has raised eyebrows by wearing a white-supremacist armband around campus. But while his fellow students can separate their distaste for the symbol from their respect for his right to wear it, professors are having some trouble with that distinction. Joshua Golding, who chairs Bellarmine's philosophy department, wants to see the university forbid the student from wearing his armband. He has emailed the entire student body and faculty expressing his belief that "Bellarmine is perfectly within its rights to tell this fellow this is out of place." Meanwhile, students have held a "Sit in for Free Speech" to defend their campus against the sort of censorious intrusion Golding is endorsing.

I've been writing about free speech on campus for almost four years now. I've been steeped in these issues for so long that it sometimes seems unintelligible to me that there could really still be higher education faculty and administrators who don't get it. How couldn't they? This stuff is all over the news all the time, and the issues are parsed with great consistency from one case to the next. And yet, as these cases remind me, there are still an awful lot of folks in higher education who are ignorant of the what free speech is and why it matters, who are unprincipled in their actions when it comes to suppressing speech they find offensive or disruptive, and who don't seem to grasp the philosophical rationale for defending free expression on their campuses. That's scary, to say the least.

Thanks to Maurice Black for alerting me to the Marquette and Bellarmine cases.

posted on December 6, 2005 7:44 PM


It seems simple, in a twisted way: freedom of speech and expression is fine for them who have tenure and run the place, but as soon as the students try to exercise, there must be something wrong with it. I hope that dental student sues wins. What seems to be common in cases involving blogs is that often they are personal blogs, not even kept on any university server. So, why are universities trying to regulate what is clearly someone's personal business off campus? As for the white supremacist, I dislike the symbol as well, but, it is his right to express his view and wear it. It's our right to ignore and shun him (no one said just because there is free speech it automatically means we have to listen). Keep up pointing these issues out. Best.

Posted by: Itinerant Librarian at December 8, 2005 9:57 AM

i think the problem is more widespread--most people in this country only give lip service to freedom. freedom is great when you agree with them. God protect you if you dont't.

look at how war protestors/supporters have been treated by each other. most people (including me) have a hard time seeing the other side, especially if it's a topic in which they have an emotional investment (abortion et al.).

this is a bigger problem when bureaucracies start doing all the stuff that Erin reports on this blog. of course, the bureaucracies fear the "I shouldn't be offended" attitude that so many people have.

i'm don't know what can be done--maybe more focus on respecting (or in the case of the neo-nazi, ignoring-shunning) views which differ from yours. that's probably more mature than most people are willing to be (i stole that line from a calvin and hobbes cartoon--my apologies to Bill Waterson).

Posted by: Jason at December 8, 2005 10:33 AM

You don't understand, Erin. As a student says in this article, "Words are sharp tools and certain people like Ann Coulter use them to hurt people." Words can really, really hurt; they create victims with deep wounds that require stitches of kindness, icepacks of tenderness, and band-aids of empathy.

What kind of community would allow people to hurt each other like this? We need more education to make everyone accepting and caring and sensitive. That way, we'll never have victims. For this reason, let's all agree to ban the intolerant. [ / facetious rant]

Posted by: Me at December 8, 2005 11:29 AM

It seems pretty clear that the whole idea of free speech is under attack in our society, and I'd like to suggest a hypothesis that may partly explain why this is happening...

Traditionally, most people worked with *things*. If you are a farmer, or a machinist, or even an electrical engineer, the difference between things and *words* is pretty clear. A plow or a lathe is clearly a thing (even a volt is sort of a thing), whereas words are something else entirely. Whereas now, we have millions of people whose entire professional lives are centered entirely around words. Hence, the distinction between "doing something" and "saying something" tends to be lost on them.

Posted by: David Foster at December 8, 2005 4:12 PM

The sky is falling. I agree with Jason again.

In fact, I had already thought that the white supremacist armband wearer needs some good old-fashioned shunning. I think he probably digs all the attention he's getting. Better to let him learn the life lesson that it's a bad idea to be gratuitously offensive when he finds out he's alienated people he wants to know or whose good will he needs.

Not to mention, for those students who are offended (and it is offensive) it's a life lesson that you can't control other people's attitudes and expressions. You can choose not to associate with them.

Posted by: Laura at December 8, 2005 9:15 PM

Bellarmine is a Catholic University. I don't know how much of its funding is from the gov't.

Much as Free Speech is a Good Thing, not every speech is worthy of a Demosthenes.

There are some ideas which have not stood the test of time, which have been found over and over again to be inimical to human civilization.

Those ideas do not need to see the light of day any longer. People who espouse them are a danger to the rest of us.

Free speech is not absolute.

Suppose it were a Jewish-run university. Would the faculty still be wrong in censuring the student?

Why do we always tend to bend over backwards (a position of submission) in trying to recognize everybody's diversity? Why do we not stand up for what we know is right?

Don't the students who protest for his "right" realize that further down the road, his "right" extends to their extermination?

Posted by: Mike Z at December 8, 2005 9:21 PM

The article states that the student wears the armband in support of a one-party system and a strong central govt, not out of sympathy with white supremacy. His first hands-on lesson with the implications of this attitude would be to have the school's "free-speech committee" render his armband unacceptable speech!

Posted by: David at December 9, 2005 3:04 PM

I think this student is rather foolish to try and pretend that the clothing/political accessories he wears do not send messages other than the one he wishes them to receive (that he supports a strong central government, etc). Naturally he does have the right to wear this, but as far as conveying his own beliefs he'd probably be better off creating a new symbol and wearing that as an armband. People would be confused/intrigued and ask him, and he could explain his position. As it is, they see it and believe they know what it represents, so they are offended (rightfully so).

Posted by: Constantine at December 10, 2005 1:13 PM

If the only people left to protect are a student lwearing a neo-nazi armband (and it's a variant of a swastika he's wearing, not a text about a strong central government) and an a-hole that publishes pictures of his neighbors having sex in their home, perhaps academia is not that bad after all.

Posted by: anon at December 11, 2005 2:07 AM