Backing expression over suppression

October 27, 2008

Especially in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign, free expression on college campuses remains a heated topic, with reports of student vandalism of political displays they don’t like, or administrations disinviting speakers who are deemed too controversial, surfacing periodically.

Since students in college tend to be more liberal as a group than Americans as a whole, critics of higher education regularly charge that conservative views are more likely to be squelched by vandals or officials. But that’s not entirely the case: some Catholic institutions, for instance, have received flak or distanced themselves from pro-life speakers who support Barack Obama for president.

Two recent cases, however, illustrated that – arguably in part because of pressure from well-organized publicity campaigns – whatever the original infringement, administrations have a keen interest in upholding their policies on free expression in the end.

Both instances involved anti-abortion campus groups. At Cornell University, an administrative assistant removed a series of outdoor posters that had been approved for display, while at Harvard University there were reports of students tearing down or covering publicity materials posted around campus. In both cases, the administration came down on the side of the students – although in Cornell’s case, the student group says the university still hasn’t admitted any wrongdoing on its part.

On Wednesday morning, students in the Cornell Coalition for Life found themselves confronted by a staff member who questioned whether they had the right to show a series of posters on the university’s Engineering Quad illustrating the symbolic prenatal life cycle of “Elena” from conception onwards. According to the group, one poster had the proper authorizations taped on the back, and the staff member mentioned specific problems with the content of the posters – not a criterion for obtaining approval in the first place.

The dispute lasted 90 minutes, during which the students had to take down their posters and resorted to calling the campus police to return them. Both the administration and the group wasted little time in circulating responses to the incident.

“We are aware that some have attempted to cast this incident in the context of the stifling of freedom of speech,” said Tommy Bruce, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, in a statement Thursday. “Nothing could be further from the truth. This university has and will continue to respect and uphold the free-speech rights of all members of the Cornell community. And we continue to adhere to the principle that, in President David Skorton’s words, ‘all perspectives and their proponents are welcome on our great university’s campuses.'”

Following a long history of allegations, mainly from conservative groups, that Cornell has stood by while students have threatened to stifle free expression on campus, Skorton has made an effort to publicly affirm the university’s support of students’ rights.

“I hope you will join me in resisting attempts to limit campus discussion, even when we abhor the message being delivered, and in promoting civil and rational debate as an opportunity to learn together and develop a more nuanced understanding of the issues and the perspectives of those who bring them forth,” he wrote in an op-ed last month responding to a controversy over articles in the orientation issue of the campus conservative newspaper, The Cornell Review, which was co-founded by Ann Coulter in 1984.

(The paper, which has periodically come under fire for publishing articles that some consider inflammatory, ran a satirical piece about Muslims and a column about “bitter minorities” in that issue, provoking the Student Assembly to condemn the publication and consider passing a rule that would bar it from using the name “Cornell” in its title.)

The dean of the College of Engineering, W. Kent Fuchs, followed up with an e-mail to students the same day: “A news release is now circulating that suggests the removal of the signs was the result of a disagreement with the sign content and was an effort to stifle freedom of speech. The release also implies that we withheld permission to repost the signs. These implications are not true. While we are very sorry that the student group was inconvenienced while we checked on approvals, the question was entirely one of permissions and approvals. Permission to repost was granted within minutes of confirming that the students had received approval to post the signs.”

That didn’t placate the Coalition for Life, which responded with another release. “We are surprised and disappointed to see that the administration has decided to issue a statement denying that the staff members acted improperly instead of simply apologizing and admitting that the Elena Campaign should not have been removed in the first place,” said Tristen Cramer, a senior and the group’s former president, in the statement.

The group has stopped short of accusing the administration of politically motivated bias, as others have done in the past, but it did allege censorship on the parts of the staffers involved and criticized the administrative assistant’s apparent implication that the college had an “unwritten policy” against displays on the quad.

“No no, there’s no political agenda,” said Fuchs in a brief interview by phone Friday. “It was a mistake on behalf of an administrative assistant who did not know that the posters had approval for placement on the engineering quad, and once it was determined by her and the associate dean of the college that approval had been given, the posters went up.” That statement went beyond Fuchs’ previous e-mail, which didn’t explicitly acknowledge a mistake.

“My feeling is probably that the higher up you go, [the response is] less political and [more] kind of protecting one’s own,” said Adam Kissel, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which supports free expression on college campuses and has publicized the Cornell case. “A case like this is embarrassing, and that’s the real issue when you get to higher levels of the administration.”

“I’m partly reassured because in the statements that Cornell released, they were emphatic that free speech is obviously welcome on campus, there’s no such policy on the Engineering Quad, and so forth,” said Cramer in a follow-up interview. However, she continued, “It’s discouraging to us as a club that they have denied essentially our account of the event. They have not really admitted that the situation wasn’t properly handled…. In our opinion the administrative assistant should never have felt comfortable with removing our signs.”

Cramer said she was surprised that the resistance came from the administration, and not fellow students. At Harvard, however, that was apparently the case. As The Crimson reported Friday, students earlier this week received an e-mail from the associate dean for student life and activities referring to “serious and persistent disrespect for the rights of students to poster on campus with a message that may be distasteful to some.” While it wasn’t clear what the message was referring to, the dean, Judith H. Kidd, asserted: “Continued violation of the rights of others cannot and will not be tolerated.”

A spokesman at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences confirmed to Inside Higher Ed that a student group had complained about vandalism, which the student newspaper reported originated from Harvard Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

Download file "Backing expression over suppression"

Schools: Cornell University Cases: Cornell University: Student Group’s Sign Display Removed from Engineering Quad