At White House Summit on Community Colleges, Take a Moment to Remember Student Rights

By October 5, 2010

Today, the White House is holding a summit on community colleges, where it has convened "150 people from across the nation, including community college, business, philanthropy, federal and state policy leaders, and students." Among the agenda items for the summit, led by Jill Biden (herself a community college instructor), are improving graduation and retention rates, the affordability of higher education, and the ways community colleges can adapt their education models to the rapidly changing needs of the workforce.

All of these are important issues to discuss, especially now. Recent years have seen a surge in community college enrollment, with many adults returning to school for the first time in yearsif not decadesfor advanced training in the hopes of regaining the middle-class existences (and salaries) that they have lost in the recession. Even in the good times, though, roughly half the number of students enrolled in America’s postsecondary educations are enrolled in our community colleges; any conversation on the future of higher education in the United States must by necessity include them.

I hope, perhaps loftily, that the conversation going on at the White House today leaves some room for the acknowledgment of the importance of protecting free speech in our community colleges, for in the "marketplace of ideas" that is our higher education system, our community colleges are the Wal-Mart Supercenters.

President Obama’s remarks this afternoon helped to drive this point home when he said that "[community colleges] are places where anyone with a desire to learn and to grow can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their familieswhether that’s a single mom, or a returning soldier, or an aspiring entrepreneur." Such a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives on the world is a hallmark of the community college experienceso matter of fact, in fact, that it is often taken for granted.

That so many of the students on our community college campuses are full-fledged adultsoften with careers, families, car payments, mortgages, and other adult concernsdrives home the ludicrous nature of college administrators’ attempts to control and stifle student speech. Take the case of Isaac Rosenbloom at Hinds Community College in Mississippi. Rosenbloom was thrown out of a class and nearly lost his financial aid (before FIRE stepped in) for uttering a single profanity outside of class time, within hearing distance of his instructor. When she told him she was giving him "detention" for doing so (which she couldn’t, because there is no such punishment at HCC) one can imagine how ridiculous this must have sounded to him as a man of nearly thirty, with two young children to support.

Unfortunately, some of FIRE’s most egregious cases in recent years have come at community colleges, serving largely adult populations. Consider:

  • At the Community College of Allegheny County, student Christine Brashier was prevented from beginning a gun rights student group. Not only did administrators order her to destroy all of her promotional materials, they threatened her with charges of academic misconduct and told her, "You may want to discuss this topic but the college does not, and you cannot make us."
  • At Tarrant County College in Texas, students were prevented from holding an "empty holster" protest on campus for two years in a row by being confined to a tiny "free speech zone." Even there they still were not allowed to wear their holsters as part of the symbolic protest. (The college lost a lawsuit after making multiple efforts to keep the protest from happening as planned.)
  • At Southwestern College in California, three faculty members were suspended for supposedly inciting students to take a protest outside the boundaries of the college’s unconstitutional "free speech patio."

There are many more such examples from coast to coast. Defenders of speech codes and other overreactions to the "threat" of speech that is too freely expressed often point to the supposedly fragile psyches of their relatively young students (compared to other adults). The insufficiency of such defenses is put in even starker relief when applied to campus populations that, in addition to the single mothers and returning veterans noted by President Obama, also includes law enforcement officers-in-training, mechanics and other industrial professionals, and other people who have far more pressing concerns (families and career advancement, to start) than the chance of being offended by one of their peers.

Hopefully these facts are not forgotten in our ongoing dialogue on America’s community colleges. The message in our open letter to President Obama at the time of his inauguration holds just as true for our community colleges as it does for the Harvards and Yales of America.