Higher Ed & the 1st Amendment

RU Speechless?

Freedom of speech is a  fundamental right guaranteed under the Virginia Constitution, the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But freedom of speech is often not recognized in the one place where it ought to be respected the most:  A college campus in the USA.

For centuries, and for generations, unpopular speech has been most protected on college campuses.  For instance, a photo of President Teddy Roosevelt (above) shows a speech he gave defending Professor John Bassett on the Duke University campus in 1903. Bassett  was about to be fired for saying he thought  Booker T. Washington (an African American leader) was the greatest person the South had ever produced except Robert E. Lee.

When the Duke board refused to fire Bassett, Roosevelt said:

“You stand for Academic Freedom, for the right of private judgment, for a duty more incumbent upon the scholar than upon any other man, to tell the truth as he sees it, to claim for himself and to give to others the largest liberty in seeking after the truth.”

It’s been a long time since any similarly strong defense of campus speech has taken place. Today many universities simply refuse to recognize First Amendment rights until they are forced to do so by a court. At Radford University, where this blog originates,  avenues for student expression are strictly limited in ways that are obviously unconstitutional.

For example:

  • Bulletin boards:  Students are not allowed to use bulletin boards without stamped, initialed approvals by state government officials who act as censors. Any materials posted that are not stamped are immediately removed. Student assistants are employed to patrol bulletin boards daily.  And the university is in the process of removing most of the bulletin boards.
  • Leafleting is theoretically OK, but Hurlburt student center employees actually tell students it is prohibited.
  • Greek signs:  Students must obtain  prior approval for signs and other communications outside  their own homes off campus, especially communications concerning fraternity or sorority affiliations. No other campus in America imposes this form of censorship. This is imposed with through a city ordinance which was written at the request of university officials in 2007. The ordinance is no doubt unconstitutional, and probably also a violation of the Dillon rule.
  • Speech zones:  Students are forced to confine their protests and other speech activities to tiny areas of a campus where students are supposed to sit passively at tables. “Leafleting” and initiating direct communication with passing students is prohibited. Speeches are also prohibited. Certain faculty and student groups have been denied permits for protests, although this is unusual.
  • Individual communications:  Forms of direct individual communication such as cafeteria “table tents”  and chalk messages on sidewalks are also forbidden without written prior permission and an examination of the content of the message by state government officials.  Unapproved chalk messages are swiftly covered over and then power-washed on an emergency basis.
  • Internet and Web: Virtually all campus communications through electronic media originate with the university administration.  Faculty-to-student communication through group emails, for example,  in order to advertise new classes,  is not allowed.  Student-to-student communication on university issues is also not allowed. The web system is so difficult to use that it is impossible to share professional issues with students. And the main “communications” committee that controls these items does not have students or faculty as members.
  • Student media: Although not usually censored directly, student media has been under a variety of pressures and has been fully marginalized.  It has been moved off campus to a location dangerous for undergraduate women, reduced in funding, and restricted in a variety of other ways. Student reporters notes have been confiscated by university officials in at least one case involving a university lawsuit.

In short, the university has the look and feel of a corporation, and not a center of research, ideas and debate. Perhaps this is intentional. If so, all the more reason to raise these issues about an institution of state government.

However, it’s very difficult to break a spiral of silence from inside a spiral of silence. University administrators and city officials have categorically refused student press  interviews, invitations to classrooms and participation in panel discussions.  Some have pretended to be angry at the mere mention of constitutional issues; others have rejected these questions as having “been settled” or being “not an issue.” This speaks to the arrogance that is deliberately fueling the spiral of silence.

All attempts to reform the speech zones  by the Student Government Association, the Council of Deans, the Faculty Senate, and constitutional scholars on the faculty (along with the entire School of Communication)  have been resisted by the university administration.

Essentially, this is the administration against the faculty and students, attempting to define a university in ways that are contrary to tradition and constitutional law.

In private, we have heard about the interests of “order” and “law enforcement.” RU administrators admit that there are no current problems with law enforcement, but rather, that they might be potential problems, and strict regulations are needed in case they need to “head off” a problem.

The kind of problem that might need to be “headed off” is typically presented as a Ku Klux Klan march.  Ironically, the 1987 Ku Klux Klan march in Radford has been used  by international free speech experts as an example of the American approach to hate speech:  to meet bad speech with good speech, and to allow John Stuart Mills’ fourth proposition about freedom of expression — that complete error must be allowed if only to enhance the contrasting perception of truth.

In conclusion, the deeply embarrassing part of this is that a public university in the United States can pretend that the First Amendment stops at the city line.

— Professor Bill Kovarik, PhD