Facing Criticism, Virginia Tech Disavows Efforts to Censor Student Paper

By on February 15, 2010

In the face of mounting criticism, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) administrators distanced themselves on Friday from efforts to cut the funding of the Collegiate Times, the school’s independent student newspaper, because of the paper’s refusal to eliminate anonymous comments from its website. University spokesman Larry Hincker told The Roanoke Times that Virginia Tech does not support ending the school’s contract with the Collegiate Times or its parent company and is not contemplating a ban on advertising in the newspaper:

"This is a student issue. These are students raising this issue with their fellow students" and not an administrative initiative, university spokesman Larry Hincker said. Any effort to end Tech’s contract with the Collegiate Times or its parent company, or to ban student organizations from advertising in the newspaper, "is not in the offing," Hincker said. "That is not the position of this administration."As Adam detailed here on The Torch last week, both steps had been recommended earlier this month by Virginia Tech’s Commission on Student Affairs. In a February 8 letter from the Commission to the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech (EMCVT), the organization that oversees the Collegiate Times, Commission Chair Michelle McLeese notified EMCVT that because the paper allowed "irresponsible and inappropriate" anonymous comments on its website, the Commission recommended that the university end its funding of the paper.

In a victory for freedom of the press on campus, Virginia Tech rejected this proposal quickly. The proposal garnered Virginia Tech near-instant criticism from free speech advocates; the university’s prompt clarification regarding the potential censorship followed strong statements of disapproval from FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

FIRE is pleased that Virginia Tech has disowned the Commission’s unconstitutional attempt to punish the Collegiate Times for allowing anonymous comments. As the EMCVT implied in its powerful response to the Commission’s letter, and as Adam pointed out on Thursday, anonymous speech is protected under the First Amendment and has been a key element in our nation’s political discourse at least since the Federalist Papers and Common Sense.

While we’re happy that Virginia Tech has recognized the primacy of the First Amendment on campus in this instance, we are troubled by the extent to which this incident highlights the danger presented by presumptively well-intentioned statements like Virginia Tech’s "Principles of Community" when marshaled against unpopular protected speech. Here, the Commission sought to punish the Collegiate Times because the allowance of anonymous comments "counter[ed] the Principles of Community"—never mind the fact that anonymous comments, and the paper’s right to publish them, are both protected by the First Amendment. As Adam wrote on Thursday:

A statement such as the "Principles of Community" may not be given binding force against free expression without violating the First Amendment, as we have pointed out many times. Virginia Tech must act immediately to prevent such violations from happening in the future by publicly and immediately announcing that the "Principles of Community" will never be mandatory and will always be merely aspirational. That is what Penn State did last year, and Virginia Tech would do well to follow Penn State’s example—and fast.

Given its timely recognition of the First Amendment problems presented by the Commission’s recommendation, we hope that Virginia Tech will now also recognize the problems inherent in the "Principles of Community" which the Commission cited in support of its wrongheaded attempt at coercion. While the ideals voiced by the "Principles" may be laudable, they cannot be mandated by Virginia Tech or any other government actor. FIRE asks Virginia Tech to publicly clarify that these ideals can only be aspirational, not required.

Schools: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Cases: Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech Threatens Student Newspaper’s Future over Protected Anonymous Comments on Its Own Website