Bucknell University Joins Worst Offenders Against Liberty on FIRE’s Red Alert List

By on August 25, 2009

Thanks to its continuous distortions and abuses of its own policies on free expression to suppress political speech, Bucknell University has earned the dubious honor of being placed on FIRE’s Red Alert list. Institutions on the Red Alert list are unrepentant offenders against basic rights that are guaranteed either by the U.S. Constitution or the schools themselves, and they have policies and/or practices that demonstrate a serious and ongoing threat to current and future students. They are the “worst of the worst” when it comes to protecting liberty on campus.

Though repeated letters from FIRE, backed up with documentary evidence, have made clear to Bucknell that its suppression of the political activities of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) was a violation of its supposed core principles of free expression, Bucknell has continued to willfully misinterpret its policies and offer after-the-fact defenses that make a mockery of campus expression and severely endanger free speech at Bucknell. In spite of this, and of the fact that its actions have sparked widespread public condemnation and negative publicity, Bucknell has refused to accept wrongdoing for its suppression of BUCC’s activities.

The controversy at Bucknell began in March, when BUCC members attempted to distribute fake dollar bills in protest of the federal stimulus, featuring an image of President Obama. BUCC members were told by a campus administrator that they were “busted,” and that their activities were a violation of Bucknell’s Sales and Solicitation policy. Even after pointing out that the “stimulus dollars” distribution was an obvious act of political protest and that the students were not engaged in solicitation, Bucknell still considered the act to fall under this policy, seeing it as the equivalent of “handing out Bibles” (which also would not be solicitation under the policy). Such a misinterpretation of this policy effectively subjects any distribution of materials between students to the prior review and approval of the administration, significantly undermining Bucknell’s commitment to free expression.

The next month, Bucknell shut down BUCC’s previously approved “affirmative action bake sale,” designed to protest affirmative action by charging different prices based on ethnicity. The sales are a well-known method of attracting attention to the issue, and are not intended to raise revenue. Associate Dean of Students Gerald Commerford cited a discrepancy between the prices being charged and the prices BUCC listed on its event application form (BUCC was charging lower-than-expected prices), telling BUCC “we have the opportunity to shut you down.”

When BUCC applied to hold a second bake sale, Commerford rejected the application outright, this time saying that the bake sale violated Bucknell’s policies against discrimination. Despite the fact that BUCC was engaging in a well-known form of political protestwhich FIRE has defended numerous times at public and private universitiesCommerford flatly rejected the possibility of the bake sale even if BUCC made all pricing options optional, saying “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, because it’s a discriminatory [pricing] policy.” Making matters worse, Commerford suggested that only under certain circumstances would any discussion of affirmative action be welcome, telling them, “It’s not a political issue, ok; it needs to be debated in its proper forum, ok, and not on the public property of the campus.”

FIRE wrote to Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell, pointing out the numerous violations Bucknell had committed of its own policies in suppressing BUCC’s activities, and of its legal and moral obligation to protect its students’ free speech rights. After receiving a response from Bucknell General Counsel Wayne Bromfield upholding the rationale for Bucknell’s deplorable treatment of BUCC and refusing to accept fault, FIRE wrote to President Mitchell once more. After receiving another response from Bromfield in which he refused to address FIRE’s concerns further, Bucknell was added to FIRE’s Red Alert list. President Mitchell has yet to offer any public comment on Bucknell’s free speech crisis, which has been chronicled in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

Bucknell’s contemptuous treatment of BUCC should send a message to all current and prospective Bucknell students that their free speech rights are at the whim of an administration all too willing to bend its own policies and strong-arm its students to stifle speech it does not want heard on campus. By placing Bucknell on its Red Alert list, FIRE hopes to amplify that message, and to finally compel Bucknell to end its embarrassing fight against free speech.

Along with Brandeis, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, and Tufts, Bucknell now shares the “honor” of a spot on FIRE’s Red Alert list.

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