Bard College Steps Up for Free Speech

By on October 4, 2011

It always feels great to be able to share good news about free speech on campus. So I am very happy to report that Bard College in New York has taken the commendable step of clarifying its student conduct policies to affirm that the college is committed to students’ right to free speech and expression.

Until this year, Bard was listed as "not rated" in FIRE’s Spotlight database, a designation reserved for private institutions that make clear that they place other values above the right to free speech. Bard’s "Community Standards of Behavior" formerly provided that

Everyone who lives, works, or studies at Bard is here by choice and, as part of that choice, must be committed to standards of behavior that emphasize caring, civility, and a respect for the personal dignity of others. … When language or other expression is used to harm, to demean, or to incite violence, it has breached the standard of civility in communication on this campus. Conduct that deliberately causes embarrassment, discomfort, or injury to other individuals or to the community, as a whole, is explicitly not allowed.

FIRE felt that because of this clear statement, students enrolling at Bard would understand that they were giving up certain rights in exchange for enrollment—and as a result, Bard received our "not rated" designation. But over the years, we noticed a number of statements elsewhere in Bard’s policies indicating that the college did value free speech, and we grew concerned that this apparent conflict might be confusing to students.

So in November 2010, we wrote to Bard President Leon Botstein asking him to clarify the status of Bard’s commitment to free expression. The following month, I received a very thoughtful email from President Botstein, which stated that in response to our letter he had formed a committee—including a faculty member with significant First Amendment experience—to review the college’s policies and recommend changes.

Too often, when confronted with inconsistencies in their policies, college administrators are defensive or argue that the policies which seem to restrict speech do not, in fact, restrict speech. Not so at Bard. Following the unusually open and thoughtful response from President Botstein, a number of policies were revised to clarify that Bard is, in fact, committed to its students’ free speech rights.

Bard’s 2011-2012 Community Standards of Behavior [.pdf] do not prohibit protected expression, instead affirming that "the Bard College community is committed to freedom of thought and speech." And a new "Free Speech Policy" [.pdf] addresses the status of offensive but protected speech at Bard, providing that

Speech or expression that is not prohibited, but is rude, lacking in respect, disruptive, or hateful is discouraged. The College may voice its disapproval of such expression through private communications, public condemnation, the organization of public forum and calls for more speech and open debate.

Colleges should not feel an obligation to denounce speech by students or faculty members that the institution disfavors. After all, the institution is not responsible for that speech, and it is unreasonable in the extreme to ascribe the speech of every individual student, faculty member, or invited speaker to the college itself. But if a college does wish to express that it disagrees with the speech of one of the members of its community, the approach that Bard has chosen not only protects students’ rights, but is also more effective than censorship. Rather than driving supposedly bad or hateful ideas underground, it allows those ideas to fail in the marketplace of ideas.

The policy also makes clear that "the College defends the rights of free speech and expression, dissent and protest."

Despite its newly clear commitments to free speech, Bard still has a few policies on the books that are inconsistent with those commitments, such as a posting policy threatening disciplinary action for any postings intended to "embarrass" others. Compared to many other universities, these restrictions are relatively minor, but they are significant enough that Bard receives a "yellow light," rather than a "green light," rating from FIRE. Given President Botstein’s obviously heartfelt commitment to free speech, we hope that the college will follow through with the few changes that would make it our next green-light school (and we will soon be sending them a friendly letter detailing how they can do that).

But perfect should not be the enemy of good, so today we simply want to commend Bard for stepping up and making clear that free speech is an important value to be protected at the college. Few other institutions or administrators would have responded with such thoughtfulness and open-mindedness, and the resulting changes to Bard’s policies are very meaningful. Kudos to Bard and to its students, who now know that they can freely speak their minds.

Schools: Bard College