Alum: Whittier College Must Do Much Better on Student Speech

By on October 26, 2012

Over on his blog, Whittier College (Calif.) alum Adam Steinbaugh writes a great piece exposing the restrictions Whittier places on its students’ campus expression. As Adam writes, Whittier maintains a number of laughable speech codes and has a long way to go, both in policy and in practice, toward respecting student free speech.

Take, for instance, Whittier’s "Publicity Policy," which states in relevant part: "All emails/advertisement must be in good taste and non-libelous…" (emphasis added). This, writes Adam, is clearly problematic:

Even assuming this applies only to commercial advertisement, it places total authority to determine what can be distributed in the hands of one administrator, and leaves it to her or his sound discretion to determine whether or not the advertisement is in "good taste."  There is no taste exception to the First Amendment, not even for commercial speech.  Misleading or false advertisement can be limited, but not just that which one person perceives to be in ‘poor taste.’

Similarly, student organizations face a number of speech restrictions at Whittier, including that they must "[a]lways represent Whittier College in a positive manner." How exactly does Whittier intend to enforce a requirement of "positive" speech and representation at all times? Adam wonders the same thing:

[T]his means that were this very post made under the auspices of one of Whittier’s organizations, that organization could be subject to discipline.  I am, after all, (lovingly) disparaging Whittier.  Similarly, a gay rights organization could be disciplined for disparaging or discriminating against members of an organization it views contemptuously – or a group committed to ‘traditional’ marriage punished for disparaging homosexuals.

These and other speech codes at Whittier violate both California’s "Leonard Law," which extends First Amendment rights to students at the state’s private, non-sectarian colleges and universities, as well as Whittier’s own stated commitment to free speech. On the latter point, Adam writes:

Even without the Leonard Law, Whittier promises to protect student speech.  "Whittier College is a private institution fully committed to the ideals of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and cultural diversity." (pdf, p58).  The Student Handbook promises (pdf, p65) that "Whittier College respects the free speech rights of student organizations to peaceable [sic] assemble to discuss different philosophies, ideals, positions and opinions."

Indeed, like the vast majority of private colleges and universities out there, Whittier pretty clearly commits itself to full freedom of speech in official policy, but then takes back its promise with a number of restrictive speech codes.

Next, Adam takes on the question of why all of this matters for student expression at his alma mater:

"Do you really think the College would censor those?"  That’s a clown question, bro.  Even if we trust the good judgment of current administrators not to employ these rules in questionable ways, there is no guarantee that future administrators will be as trustworthy, just as past administrators have proven their infidelity to the principles of free speech — more on this later.

Quite right. (And bonus points for the "clown question" reference.) As we often point out here at FIRE, when speech codes are left on the books at a university, they invite administrative abuse and selective application. In the hands of the wrong official, they are an act of censorship or restriction of protected speech waiting to happen. And of course, by their very existence they chill campus discourse and misinform students of their expressive rights.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad. As Adam writes, there is a lot that students and administrators can do at Whittier to make it a more welcoming place for free speech:

First, Whittier should commit to rescinding its speech-restrictive rules.  It’s free to encourage productive speech, but its current promulgations are confusing, ambiguous, and at times outright inviting censorious abuse.

Second, Whittier should take a proactive stance to student speech.  I would like to see Whittier become the first of any California school — public or private — to have a green light rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.  We’re better than Occidental, aren’t we?

We at FIRE would love to see Whittier take on its speech codes and reform them in line with the requirements of California’s Leonard Law and the college’s own stated promises of free speech. Hopefully Adam’s piece will serve as an impetus for this process to get underway. We thank Adam for his insightful and comprehensive examination of these issues; there’s even a plug for FIRE’s newly revised Guide to Free Speech on Campus in there! Great work, Adam!