FIRE Letter to President John L. Lahey

By September 17, 2008

September 17, 2008

President John L. Lahey
Quinnipiac University
275 Mount Carmel Avenue
Hamden, Connecticut 06518-1908

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (203-582-8936)

Dear President Lahey:

As you can see from our list of Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and, as in this case, freedom of association on America’s college campuses. Our website, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is gravely concerned about the threat to freedom of speech and freedom of association presented by the content of a recent letter sent from a Qunnipiac University (QU) administrator to Jaclyn Hirsch of QU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This is our understanding of the facts; please inform us if you believe we are in error.

Over the course of the 20072008 academic year, the Quinnipiac Chronicle, QU’s student newspaper, disagreed with the QU administration over various policies that restricted the activity and autonomy of the newspaper. For instance, QU mandated that the paper’s content could only be posted on the web simultaneously with the publishing of the print version, and in May 2008, QU asserted unprecedented control over the selection of the paper’s leaders. Ultimately, a number of Chronicle staff members and applicants for Chronicle positions founded an independent, online news publication, The Quad News.

Early this academic year, students in the Quinnipiac University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and student members of The Quad News jointly participated in activities held on campus. According to a Quad News statement issued on September 13, 2008, the publication had reserved meeting space at QU for weekly meetings, and the reservations had been approved on August 18, 2008, by Esther DeAngelis, Secretary for the Campus Reservation and Information Center.

In response to the interactions between SPJ and The Quad News, on September 8, 2008 (in a letter erroneously dated September 15), Daniel W. Brown, Director of QU’s Student Center and Student Leadership Development, wrote to Jaclyn Hirsch, who is both SPJ president and managing editor of The Quad News. Brown’s letter stated that “any further interaction or endorsements with The QUAD News [sic] could result in the Quinnipiac University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists losing its recognition status.”

While it is true that QU’s 20082009 Student Handbook states that independent organizations such as The Quad News may not “operate on campus,” Brown’s letter goes so far as to ban SPJ’s “interaction” with such a group. Notwithstanding the strange circumstance of someone like Hirsch not being allowed to “interact” with herself, at any public university Brown’s restriction would be a clear violation of the group’s First Amendment right to freedom of association. As the United States Supreme Court has held, “[i]t is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech.” NAACP v. Ala. ex. rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 460 (1958).

We recognize that QU is a private university that may choose to prize certain values higher than those of freedom of expression and freedom of association. We are curious, however, what value Brown is expressing when he bans interaction with an independent student newspaper that has been at odds with QU. Is Brown promoting the value of squelching criticism of the university? Such a value would seem to betray the spirit of debate that should characterize a free marketplace of ideas and a university such as QU, which advertises itself as a “spirited, welcoming campus.” How can students in the core curriculum course QU 101 learn about “the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” when the rights they enjoy as citizens off campus are abruptly eliminated when they step foot onto campus? The Supreme Court famously observed that “[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972). We would hope that QU would honor the special role of freedom of expression and association in a modern liberal education, rather than seek to restrict and censor student interaction and initiative.

QU’s hostility towards a free and independent press borders on the bizarre. The Chronicle reported on December 24, 2007, that you had made the following statements at a Student Government Association meeting the previous Wednesday:

So I guess the challenge for us now is how in today’s world we can really have a good discussion with the students about important topics, but not have it be a press conference to the world, where I have absolutely no control.

Why should I come to a meeting like this to discuss with the students sensitive topics [such as diversity] that are appropriate to discuss, but run the risk of that being reported, maybe accurately, or not accurately?

In addition, the September 12 memo from Vice President for Public Affairs Lynn Bushnell, which claims that a recent Yale Daily News editorial “abused” the “power of the press” by criticizing QU’s behavior in this situation, only provides more evidence of an unhealthy preference among QU administrators for censorship and silence rather than free and open debate.

If Quinnipiac University wishes to be a place where even the most fundamental American rights are subordinated to repressive university policies or the beliefs and preferences of university administrators, the university should explicitly state as much in its policies and literature so that students, faculty members, and the public understand that QU places these values above those enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Since QU has not done so, however, FIRE requests that you clarify to SPJ that its members may interact with outside groups, in ways that do not violate QU policy, with impunity. Doing so will go a long way toward restoring the good name and reputation of Quinnipiac University.

FIRE hopes that this matter can be resolved amicably and swiftly, with fairness and common sense. We request a response by October 8, 2008.

Sincerely,

Adam Kissel
Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

cc:
Mark Thompson, Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs
Manuel Carreiro, Vice President and Dean of Students
Lynn Bushnell, Vice President for Public Affairs
Daniel W. Brown, Director, Student Center and Student Leadership Development
Jaclyn Hirsch
Jason Braff

Schools: Quinnipiac University Cases: Quinnipiac University: Freedoms of Press and Association in Jeopardy