Bucknell’s Oppression of Free Speech in Today’s Issue of ‘Human Events’

By September 9, 2009

When will Bucknell University realize that trying to suppress free speech is one of the best ways to help the speakers get their message out? Human Events is the latest publication to shine the light of shame on Bucknell’s frequent actions to shut down the expression of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC). The article, coauthored by FIRE Program Officer Peter Bonilla and BUCC President Travis Eaione, describes how Bucknell administrators flouted the university’s commitment to free speech and bent its policies out of shape in order to shut down BUCC’s satirical "affirmative action bake sale" and BUCC’s distribution of "Obama stimulus dollars" in protest of government spending on the federal economic stimulus.

FIRE takes no position on the social, economic, and political issues that BUCC was protesting, but we have brought all our resources to bear on exposing Bucknell’s outrageous violations of freedom of expression. Peter and Travis do a wonderful job describing what happened after BUCC’s bake sale was shut down over a technicality:

BUCC dutifully reapplied to hold the bake sale again, taking special care to get the paperwork exactly right. This time, however, [Dean Gerald] Commerford said that the bake sale violated Bucknell’s discrimination policies — even with optional, satirical pricing — and that BUCC would never, ever be able to hold such an event at Bucknell. In a conversation BUCC recorded, Commerford said, "It’s a political issue, ok; it needs to be debated in its proper forum, ok, and not on the public property on the campus."

Bucknell is certainly no "marketplace of ideas" like universities are supposed to be. Commerford insists that BUCC may never raise any kind of discussion on affirmative action unless it occurs in exactly the time, place and manner that Bucknell dictates. By controlling the forum, Bucknell is trying to control the message, too. Affirmative action, it seems, may not be the subject of spontaneous debate at Bucknell.

Peter and Travis add:

It is a sad day when universities use speech codes and other means to make student debate less free on campus than on the public sidewalk. It is even worse when they do so selectively, as Bucknell has done with its singling out of conservative speech for censorship.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the condescension that Bucknell has shown its own students by deciding they just aren’t adult enough to openly debate important issues. Are we really to believe that the students of this well-regarded university are so brittle that they must be protected from such upsetting controversies?

Indeed, Bucknell administrators made quite a mess of interpreting the "Sales and Solicitation" policy in order to find ways to shut down BUCC’s expression. When administrator Judith Mickanis was asked about shutting down the distribution of Obama stimulus dollars, she wrote:

I said that consistently permission was needed to hand out anything from Bibles to other matter. You just can’t hand things out without approval. … [G]roups can solicit only from behind tables, not out in the open like they were doing.

That’s right: according to her, students were not allowed to distribute any literature of any kind to other students in one of the most public areas of campus—except with prior permission, and certainly not "out in the open"! Bucknell made such a hash of the policy that recently it changed the name of the policy to "Sales and Promotions." (Stay tuned for more on the revisions to the policy.) We have yet to see whether Bucknell students will once again be allowed to engage in one of America’s oldest free speech traditions "out in the open."

Bucknell is on FIRE’s Red Alert list because it is truly one of the worst universities in the country when it comes to oppressing speech. (See FIRE’s full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report‘s "America’s Best Colleges" issue.) Peter and Travis conclude:

Bucknell is getting a new president next year, and BUCC plans to keep engaging students on issues that affect them. In the meantime, citizens who care about freedom of speech should join the many alumni and others who have written President Mitchell at brian.mitchell@bucknell.edu urging him to truly level the playing field for conservatives on campus.

Thanks to Human Events for running the article. Now it’s up to Bucknell to start behaving like a true marketplace of ideas—and up to us to keep pressing Bucknell to do so.

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