Another Victory for Free Speech at University of Delaware

By September 16, 2008

University of Delaware (UD) administrators unconstitutionally denied students the right to pass out a new student newspaper, The LampLighter, without prior approval earlier this month. But as today’s press release describes, after FIRE pointed out the constitutional infirmities in both UD’s policy and the false characterization of this policy by administrators, UD has changed course and restored the rights of free expression and freedom of the press on its campus. Even so, UD has yet to explain why the administrators made such misleading statements to students about the nature of their rights.

FIRE wrote UD President Patrick Harker after several students complained that on September 1, they were prevented by administrators from distributing The LampLighter on campus. The administrators told the students that distributing the newspaper counted as "solicitation" and would require a permit from the city of Newark, Delaware. When the students reminded the administrators that students enjoy a constitutional right to distribute materials, one UD administrator responded: "According to policy, they don’t." Another administrator said that individual students do not have a right to distribute materials on campusexpressly the opposite of what UD policy actually said: "Members of the University community (all classifications of students, faculty, staff, and registered student organizations) may distribute published materials on campus…"

UD policies also required "approval" from administrators before published materials could be distributed, and banned distribution of anonymous published materials altogether.

In response to our letter, Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert informed the students in a September 12 e-mail that the policy had been changed. While the previous policy required newspapers to be "labeled to indicate sponsorship," the new policy states that UD only "encourages those who publish materials to identify themselves." The new policy also omits any reference to published materials requiring administrative approval. While the new policy answers many of FIRE’s concerns, the university has yet to answer for the misleading statements of its administrators to UD students.

The policy change is the latest development in a tumultuous year for individual rights at UD. Over the past year, the University of Delaware also has had to end a thought-reform program in its residence halls; has had to change a speech code that required immediate notification of the authorities for any "oppressive" speech; has had to change a funding policy that provided only half as much funding to political student groups as to other student groups; and has lost the free-speech part of a lawsuit filed after a student was suspended, pending psychiatric evaluation, because of postings on his personal website.

UD has violated students’ constitutional rights in just about every category. So, why is UD not on FIRE’s Red Alert List, reserved for the worst of the worst schools when it comes to individual rights?

The answer is simple: UD keeps backing down. UD has been backing down on its violations of student and faculty rightsbut only under pressure or when forced to back down by the courtsat least since the 1970s, when then-president E. A. Trabant fired a professor for "advocating" homosexuality, the professor sued, and UD lost in court. In the early 1990s, UD tried to prevent professors Linda Gottfredson and Jan Blits from engaging in Pioneer Fund-sponsored research at the university. In that case, the AAUP and a federal arbitrator got involved strongly on the side of academic freedom, which had been explicitly threatened by then-president David Roselle and then-dean Frank Murray. Finally, after the two professors sued, the university settled. (For the details of both cases, see The Shadow University, chapter 6.)

And now, under pressure from FIRE, the public, and another Delaware court, UD has backed down on its violations multiple times since fall 2007. A large research university should not have to wait for FIRE or the courts to teach administrators how to respect individual rights. But at least UD is listeningand, slowly, learning.

Schools: University of Delaware