EDITORIAL: Constitution-free campuses

August 27, 2013

Millions of young Americans are welcoming their first taste of freedom away from home as college classes begin around the country. The experience is soured on a growing number of campuses where administrators have set up a Constitution-free zone that denies basic freedoms. At Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, S.C., freedom of the press took a hit last week. Distribution of a local alternative newspaper was prohibited on campus because the paper carried too many alcohol-related articles and advertisements. An Oakland University student was officially declared “persona non grata” and kicked off campus for writing an entry entitled “Hot for teacher” as part of a creative-writing assignment. As part of the class, he was told to jot down “raw stuff” from unedited “brainstorming” sessions, but the teacher became offended when the resulting stream of consciousness compared her to Ginger, the glamorous actress from “Gilligan’s Island.” Another journal entry contained a more explicit and tasteless paragraph, which offended the teacher so much that she had campus police officers escort the student from the classroom. A U.S. district court judge in Michigan ruled last month that Oakland University did nothing wrong. The federal government has been embracing campus conduct codes, disseminating them through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. During the spring semester, the agency teamed up with the Justice Department in a move that is hard to square with the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. The agencies chose to rewrite the University of Montana’s conduct code as a means of imposing a strict speech code governing harassment allegations for colleges and universities nationwide. The new code would make sexual harassment, defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” a purely subjective judgment. Thus, a student could violate the code unintentionally, as long as a classmate felt offended. Allowing the fickle feelings of collegians to be the sole criterion of acceptable behavior turns campus life into a decorum danger zone. When fall classes opened last week, the university’s Missoula campus had no revised conduct policy in place, leaving students and faculty on behavioral tenterhooks. Fortunately, some help for college students is on the way. On Friday, North Carolina became the first state to guarantee college students the right to an attorney when facing non-academic disciplinary charges. Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill granting pupils attending the Tar Heel State’s public colleges and universities access to representation by an attorney when appearing before a campus conduct board. “Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment and even rape,” says Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Because the stakes are so high, students should have the benefit of an attorney to ensure the hearing is conducted fairly and by the rules.” Mr. Shibley’s group reviewed the rules at 409 campuses and concluded in a report that 62 percent had policies that stifle free speech. That’s far too many. College students may at times become a bit too exuberant in their free expression, but they shouldn’t be forced to hand over their constitutional liberties as a condition for receiving their diploma.

Cases: University of North Carolina System: Law Guaranteeing Right to Counsel