LEWISBURG, Pa., June 11, 2009—Student rights are under assault at Bucknell University, where a conservative student group’s protests against affirmative action policies and President Obama’s stimulus plan have repeatedly been shut down or forbidden by administrators using flimsy or patently false excuses. After the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) had three events censored in two months, the students turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Bucknell promises free speech, but it delivers selective censorship,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Bucknell administrators have gone out of their way to abuse and even invent policies in attempts to silence these students, all the while professing to respect free speech.”
Bucknell’s recent forays into censorship began on March 17, 2009, when BUCC members 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. One hour into this symbolic protest, Bucknell administrator Judith L. Mickanis approached the students and told them that they were “busted,” that they were “soliciting” without prior approval, and that their activity was equivalent to handing out Bibles.
The students protested, but despite the fact that Bucknell’s solicitation policy explicitly covers only sales and fundraising materials, Mickanis insisted via e-mail that prior permission was needed to pass out any materials—“anything from Bibles to other matter.”
“Distributing protest literature is an American free-speech tradition that dates to before the founding of the United States,” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “And why is Bucknell so afraid of students handing out ‘Bibles [or] other matter’ that might provide challenging perspectives? Colleges are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, but Bucknell is betraying this ideal.”
Bucknell’s misguided crusade against free expression continued on April 7, when administrators shut down BUCC’s “affirmative action bake sale” protest. Affirmative action bake sales are a widely used form of satirical protest against affirmative action policies that treat people of different races differently. Organizers typically display suggested pricing in which African-American and Hispanic students are asked to pay lower prices than Asian and white students for the same items. The protests are thus intended to satirize and spark debate about affirmative action policies, not to raise revenue.
A video recording shows that an hour into BUCC’s protest, Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford arrived and informed the students that he had the “opportunity” to shut down the sale because the prices they were charging were different (lower) than what they had listed on their event application. The students offered to change the prices on the spot, but Commerford refused and insisted that they close the event immediately and file another application for a later date.
Accordingly, BUCC members filed an application to hold the same event two weeks later, but were then told that they would have to obtain the permission of the Dean of Students to hold a “controversial” event. No such permission is required by Bucknell policy. When the students nevertheless attempted to get this special permission, Commerford rejected the request. In a recorded conversation, Commerford said that such a bake sale would violate Bucknell’s nondiscrimination policy, even with satirical recommended (not actual) pricing, and that the only event he would approve on the topic would be a debate in a different forum altogether. This novel restriction also does not exist among Bucknell’s official policies.
“Using this absurd logic, Bucknell would have to require its College Democrats to say nothing political on campus unless they give equal time to Republican candidates at their events, or its Catholic Campus Ministry to remain silent about abortion unless it holds a debate and invites pro-choice activists to speak at its events,” Kissel said. “While students are free to host debates, they must not be required to provide a platform for their ideological opponents. Rather, those opponents must be free to spread their own messages and host their own events.”
After these three instances of censorship in two months, BUCC President Travis Eaione turned to FIRE. FIRE wrote Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell on May 21, informing him of these incidents and reminding him that the university’s handbook “instructs students not only that they have freedom of speech but that ‘deliberate interference’ with this freedom is prohibited … By shutting down BUCC events, Bucknell sends the message to its students that speech is to be feared, monitored, and ultimately restrained if it is deemed sufficiently controversial.” Bucknell has yet to respond.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational organization that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Tell Bucknell administrators to stop inventing excuses and to allow its students to enjoy the free speech rights that Bucknell has promised. Write to them here.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian C. Mitchell, President, Bucknell University: 570-577-1515; email@example.com
Gerald W. Commerford, Associate Dean of Students, Bucknell University: 570-577-1634; firstname.lastname@example.org