Bucknell Revises ‘Solicitation’ Policy after Administrators Use It Repeatedly to Shut Down Student Speech

By September 18, 2009

Bucknell University has quietly revised its "Sales and Solicitation" policy after administrators badly misinterpreted it last semester in order to shut down student speech at least twice.

Last semester, members of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) stood at Bucknell’s student center and passed out fake dollar bills with President Obama’s face on the front and the sentence "Obama’s stimulus plan makes your money as worthless as monopoly money" on the back. Bucknell administrator Judith L. Mickanis came along, however, and told the students that they were "soliciting" without prior approval. Although the Sales and Solicitation policy explicitly covered only sales and fundraising materials, Mickanis later added that prior permission was needed to distribute any materials "out in the open"—"anything from Bibles to other matter."

A few weeks later, Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford relied on the same policy to shut down BUCC’s "affirmative action bake sale" protest, a satirical protest of race-conscious admissions policies commonly held on campuses across the country. On a video recording of the event, Commerford says he is taking the "opportunity" to shut down the sale because BUCC was charging lower prices for baked goods than its solicitation form mentioned.

Commerford said that the students could file another application and hold the sale later. But when they did so, he refused to approve any such event because affirmative action "needs to be debated in its proper forum, ok, and not on the public property of the campus." (Here’s Commerford saying it on tape.) He even falsely stated that any such event, even with satirical, optional pricing, would violate Bucknell’s nondiscrimination policy.

After FIRE took BUCC’s case public, Bucknell revised its solicitation policy, while the ban on public affirmative action protests appears to remain. The new policy, now titled "Sales and Promotions," does not make clear whether handing out protest literature is covered under the policy. I think it isn’t, but with Bucknell’s track record, what student organization is going to take the risk of distributing literature without prior approval?

There are several confusing elements of the new policy. First and foremost, the key ambiguity is in this newly added line:

1. Sales and promotions may be conducted on campus
       by recognized student organizations in order to:

[...]

       d. Promote goods, services, or causes if they do not
           violate other provisions of the Student Handbook
.
[Emphasis added.]

Well, how does this apply to "Obama stimulus dollars," which carry a message that is absolutely core political speech? Is Bucknell going to call this protest literature "promotion" of a "cause"? Or does the new policy refer merely to promotional items with no speech on them and no symbolic message, like bottle openers?

And what about items of political protest that use only a symbolic message to promote a cause? Or the identical items being distributed in order to address a social issue, like when condoms are distributed in order to encourage condom use? The policy is unclear. And considering Bucknell’s attitude towards dissent, who is going to take the chance?

Further, the line about the Student Handbook makes me think that as soon as BUCC tries another affirmative action bake sale, Commerford will happily point to the new policy and again falsely say that the sale is discriminatory and is, besides, not appropriate for the public areas of the campus.

Second, there is now a new line about "exceptions" to the policy: "Any exceptions to the above must be requested in writing from the Director of Reservation, Information, and Conference Services [RICS]." This new rule affords great discretion to Bucknell to make exceptions for one group but not for another, but it fails to promise that RICS will make content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral decisions. Instead, given Bucknell’s and RICS Director Judith Mickanis’ track record, it is likely that RICS will abuse its power of discretion in order to selectively or whimsically decide which groups will receive exceptions.

Finally, the new policy refers to a "Sales and/or Promotions Application" form, but that seems not to be available online.

Bucknell should let its student organizations know that they are now operating under new rules. Bucknell also should make clear to students that distributing protest literature without having to seek prior permission from the authorities—one of America’s earliest and most important free speech traditions—is allowed at Bucknell. That is, Bucknell should clarify that the new Sales and Promotions policy only refers to commercial sales and promotions, not to any distribution of flyers, pamphlets, or even "Obama stimulus dollars" by student organizations on campus.

Until Bucknell shows that it is ready to truly honor free speech by permitting the kinds of expression it shut down last year, Bucknell will remain on FIRE’s Red Alert list of the "worst of the worst" schools when it comes to liberty on campus.

Schools: Bucknell University Cases: Bucknell University: University Slams Door on Student Satires of Obama Stimulus Plan and Affirmative Action