Boston College Fails to Live Up to Its Free Speech Promises, Earns Dishonorable ‘Red Light’ Rating

By August 7, 2009

Boston College (BC) promises that all of its students have the right "to learn, which includes the right of access to ideas, the right of access to facts and opinions, the right to express ideas, and the right to discuss those ideas with others." At the same time, BC undercuts those promises with other restrictive policies, and it has taken several actions to interfere with these rights. BC thus misleads students who count on its promises of fundamental intellectual rights, restricting speech that would be protected on a public campus. Although BC is a private college dedicated both to "intellectual excellence" and its "Jesuit, Catholic heritage," misleading students in this way is a serious problem that has now earned FIRE’s worst, "red light" rating. Unless BC openly admits that it is not truly dedicated to free expression (which is its right as a private college) or removes its speech restrictions, BC will keep its "red light" rating so that prospective students know that BC will not honor its stated commitments to freedom of expression should they choose to attend.

BC not only promises these various aspects of "[t]he right to learn" (PDF), but also makes a ringing endorsement of "openness to confrontation between ideas":

A meaningful commitment to society must include the examination of the roots of society and a willingness to challenge aspects of society that are the subject of debate and uncertainty. The very nature of such a commitment presupposes the necessity of the presentation of opposing viewpoints and an openness to confrontation between ideas. The involvement of the University or its students in this process cannot achieve any meaning if the methods of engagement, reason, and dialogue are inhibited or constrained. No greater injury to the intellectual climate of an academic institution or the academic freedom of its members can occur than the curbing of the free exchange of ideas by imposition of fear or repression. The tactics of intimidation and coercion are never more repugnant than when applied to stifle the reasoned partisanship of opinions. [Emphasis added.]

Unfortunately, any student who reads other BC policies will find these promises severely undercut. Prospective students will be confused about BC’s true commitment to "openness to confrontation between ideas" when they read (PDF) that the use of "intolerant language" is "considered inappropriate for electronic and all other forms of University discourse" and that "[t]he use of potentially offensive language" in e-mail is prohibited. They will be particularly confused when they read that

The determination of what is obscene, offensive, or intolerant is within the sole discretion of the University. [Emphasis added.]

That is, BC will decide, in its sole discretion, whether or not any discourse at the university counts as fitting within the demands for "respect, civility, and other moral standards"—including anything that is merely "potentially offensive"—as though the "confrontation between ideas" is always peaches and cream with nobody ever feeling offended. This kind of policy is a classic case of chilling expression on campus. With policies like this one, it is BC itself that is curbing the free exchange of ideas on campus by imposing fear and repression among students, who could be punished at any time for sending "potentially offensive" material by e-mail, or whose strongly stated opinions might be seen by a BC administrator as intolerant or as having an adverse effect on Boston College’s reputation.

Indeed, Boston College’s actions over the past several years have proven that BC is willing to suppress speech, despite its promises. In 2003, BC attempted to restrict the press freedom of the independent student newspaper, The Heights, after an advertisement for a Boston nightclub generated complaints from students and alumni. FIRE pointed out in a letter to BC that BC wanted The Heights to sign a new lease that would require The Heights to form an "advisory board" controlled by the BC administration; would prohibit advertisements for cigarettes, alcohol, and family planning and similar agencies; and would require the paper to "fully comply" with Boston College policies. Ultimately, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education on February 20, 2004, The Heights agreed to some of BC’s demands and was forced to pay a higher rent in order to maintain a higher degree of independence than initially sought by BC.

Then, in June 2006, BC’s Father Joseph Marchese ordered that all 3,000 copies of an orientation issue of The Heights titled The Guide be confiscated from campus distribution stands and then discarded. An opinion column in The Guide read:

[O]rientation is pretty miserable for most people-or at least it was for me. Long speeches, small group chats, and weird, random roommates all distract you from the summer of fun you were having back home. But … I promise life at Boston College gets much, much better.

According to a September 7, 2006, article in The Heights, Father Marchese also asserted BC’s power of prior review over material that would be available on campus during orientation.

In April 2008, BC contacted the BC Police Department and apparently disciplined six students who, on April Fools’ Day, posted flyers that satirized students who travel on "service trips." Posing as an advertisement for a "Black Baby Petting Zoo," the flyer mocked white students who travel on such trips abroad purportedly to volunteer but actually "to cleanse your whiteness." According to Dean of the Office of Student Development Paul Chebator, the students’ motivation was "a social critique of people who go on service trips and come back and forget about social justice issues" (The Heights, May 3, 2008). Chebator admitted that the students’ intent was not racist but that the flyer "could be construed as racist, and the University does not tolerate such behavior." In addition, Sheilah Shaw Horton, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs wrote in The Heights on May 3 that the students "indicated that their intent was not to offend, but to offer social commentary on April Fool’s Day. … [T]hese students will be held accountable for their actions … Regardless of the students’ misguided attempt at humor, members of this community may be offended [and] Boston College condemns such thoughtlessness as it violates the very core of our spiritual, moral and political principles and beliefs."

In March 2009, BC not only banned University of Illinois at Chicago education professor (and former Weather Underground member) William Ayers from giving a lecture on education on campus but also refused to permit him to speak on campus via satellite to an audience limited to members of the BC community. A Boston Globe article makes clear that the negative view of Ayers in the Boston area was the main factor in this censorship:

Boston College, citing pressure from Brighton residents and Boston police officers, refused to allow former radical William Ayers to deliver a student-sponsored lecture via satellite yesterday … BC said it had received hundreds of complaints about Ayers since Boston radio host Michael Graham blasted his scheduled visit during his Friday program. Many critics, including Boston police officers, threatened to protest the event …

Finally, Massachusetts’ highest court invalidated a search warrant on May 21, 2009, that, two months earlier, had allowed BC and state police to confiscate a BC student’s electronic equipment from his dorm room-mainly because the student had allegedly sent e-mails that were legal but deemed "harassing" by the university. The Heights reported on March 26 that the messages were "reported to the Office of Institutional Diversity as a ‘bias motivated incident’ and labeled as harassment in reference to a student’s sexual orientation."

FIRE wrote BC president William P. Leahy, S.J., on April 2, 2009, outlining most of these facts. Our letter made clear that Boston College, as a private, religious college, is well within its rights to limit student speech, but may not simultaneously promise freedom of speech and mislead its students about their rights:

Please clarify for us and for the BC community whether students do in fact have "[t]he right to learn [...]," and if so, how BC justifies the actions described above. Again, BC as a private institution has a First Amendment right to freedom of association which permits BC to do such things as censor and punish speech, disinvite a scheduled speaker, assert control over the student press, and assert prior review of publications-all in the name of its own mission and values. But the BC community needs a coherent articulation of the principles that BC invokes when it makes the choice to censor, not a statement of student rights that does not mean what it plainly says.

Some students and faculty members may indeed wish to be part of an institution that places certain values above free speech. But in order to be fair and honest not only to those students and faculty who are considering joining BC but also to those who are already in the BC community, you should either respect the basic tenets of free speech or make clear where BC’s limitations exist. Students and faculty members need to understand this aspect of the BC community beforethey commit to BC, or else they may feel wronged when BC’s practices do not match its promises.

BC chose not to respond, so FIRE sent a second letter on June 4, giving Father Leahy a second chance to clarify BC’s commitments. BC again did not respond, so on August 5 we notified him and the Board of Trustees that Boston College deserved, and was receiving, a "red light" rating for its serious encroachments on student speech in both its policies and its pattern of oppressive actions.

Some private religious schools receive a "not rated" designation from FIRE because they openly profess dedication to certain values more than to free expression and FIRE respects their rights, as private associations, to do so. At these schools, prospective students and faculty members know ahead of time what they are signing up for, and the schools do not pretend that they fully protect free expression like their public counterparts. BC used to be one of those schools. However, BC’s promises of free expression are too strong, and its violations of those promises too severe, for BC to deserve a "not rated" designation. This week, we have begun alerting the public via our website that Boston College is a "red light" school so that prospective members of the BC community are not misled by BC’s false promises.

To see how FIRE rates your school, please visit our national speech code database, Spotlight, or read our annual speech code report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.

Schools: Boston College Cases: Boston College: Red Light Rating