Advocating for Free Speech at Pitzer College, Claremont University Consortium

By March 14, 2013

At California’s Pitzer College, students have taken it upon themselves to advocate for their fellow students’ free speech rights and to attempt to get their institution’s speech codes revised. But their efforts are not limited to Pitzer’s campus; they extend to the entire Claremont University Consortium, a group of private institutions that includes Pitzer, Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, Harvey Mudd College, and Scripps College. So reports The Student Life, a campus newspaper published by the Associated Students of Pomona College.

As is the case with all non-sectarian private colleges and universities in California, students at Pitzer and across the Claremont University Consortium enjoy the right to freedom of speech on campus. That’s because of California’s "Leonard Law," California Education Code § 94367, which provides that "No private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article 1 of the California Constitution." Put succinctly, students at these institutions have the same free speech rights as their peers in the state’s public universities.

Unfortunately, that legal obligation is not reflected in the Consortium schools’ policies, as all five undergraduate colleges in the Consortium currently earn a "yellow light" rating from FIRE. Working against this state of affairs is Jon Rice, president of Pitzer’s Student Senate, who has taken his concerns to the Pitzer College Council and has been advocating on behalf of his fellow students. As he says to The Student Life:

"A lot of what I talk about is being proactive about policies that could be used by administrators to censor speech. And that’s what the idea is: A lot of the intentions behind speech codes are good," Rice said. "But at the end of the day, this comes down to that they’re enforced by administrators, and enforced by real people."

"What I worry about is when you have a really broad policy that 10, 20 years down the line, a different administrator can come in and read that and interpret it as, ‘I can use this to shut this student up,’" Rice added.

The article takes note of the Consortium schools’ yellow light ratings from FIRE and what exactly that indicates about the state of free speech on their campuses. For example, Pitzer’s posting policy broadly declares that "The Office of Student Affairs reserves the right to limit or stop distribution of publicity deemed offensive." As Rice points out, this puts students’ expressive rights squarely in jeopardy:

"The policy doesn’t characterize what offensive means. It just says ‘offensive.’ What one administrator finds offensive could be very different from what a student finds offensive," Rice said.

Another major focus of Rice and his campus allies is a bias-incident policy maintained by each of the Consortium colleges. (You can read the Pitzer policy here and the Pomona one here.) These policies define bias-related incidents, in pertinent part, as:

…expressions of hostility against another person (or group) because of that person’s (or group’s) race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of those characteristics.

Revising this policy would go a long way toward improving the state of free speech at the Consortium colleges, because FIRE has observed multiple episodes over the years in which administrators at the Consortium have overreacted to admittedly silly-but nonetheless clearly protected-student speech by emailing students at all five undergraduate campuses to alert them to the speech in question and to decry its content. As we have pointed out before, this cannot help but contribute to a harmful chilling effect on campus discourse. (Indeed, we have previously named the bias-incident policy our Speech Code of the Month and written to the Consortium about it, receiving only a scant reply.)

But it’s not too late to reform this policy to protect student expression. If administrators at the Consortium colleges want guidance on how to do so, they need look no further than Samantha’s helpful blog post on this very topic last fall!

In the meantime, our thanks to Jon Rice and his fellow student advocates at the Consortium, and to The Student Life as well for its coverage.

Schools: Pitzer College Claremont University Consortium