FIRE Places Billboard Criticizing Bucknell University’s Free Speech Record

By on September 20, 2010

LEWISBURG, Pa., September 20, 2010One of the main ways that universities maintain immoral and unconstitutional speech codes is to keep alumni and parents in the dark about rules that restrict student and faculty speech. That is why today the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has purchased a billboard advertisement to publicize Bucknell University’s poor record on free speech.

Bucknell, which used two policies to shut down the expression of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) on three separate occasions, is on FIRE’s Red Alert list as one of the worst violators of free speech on campus. Two Bucknell presidents, including new president John C. Bravman, have so far refused to renounce Bucknell’s censorship or revise the policies. Therefore, as of today, trustees, alumni, and others traveling northbound on Route 15 will see the electronic billboard near Bucknell’s campus.

“FIRE is committed to making sure that private universities that betray their own promises of free speech are held accountable to their own constituents and in the court of public opinion,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “College administrators are loath to give up the power that comes with policies that allow them to dictate what students may say. But for $40,594 a year in tuition, the very least Bucknell students should be able to ask is that the university live up to its promises of free speech and not selectively censor opinions the administration dislikes.”

In March 2009, a Bucknell administrator stopped BUCC from distributing “Obama stimulus dollars” expressing opposition to President Barack Obama’s economic policies. The administrator also claimed that students need prior permission to distribute “anything from Bibles to other matter” on campus. This is indeed Bucknell’s policy, and it would be unconstitutional on any public campus. It also completely contradicts Bucknell’s public promises of free speech on campus.

Then, in April 2009, Bucknell administrators shut down BUCC’s “affirmative action bake sale” due to an alleged paperwork error. A video recording shows Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford (now retired) informing BUCC that the supposed error gave him the “opportunity” to shut down the sale. Bucknell later banned all such “bake sales,” even with satirical, optional pricing, and claimed the authority to determine in its own discretion which “forum” would be appropriate for discussing such controversial issues. This Bucknell policy also would violate the First Amendment on any public campus.

“Affirmative action bake sales” and “gender wage gap bake sales” are commonly used on college campuses as political theater. Such events are creative and expressive protests, not fundraisers, and do not constitute illegal discrimination. However, Commerford informed BUCC in a recorded conversation that, even when the prices are clearly optional and serve only to highlight what the students perceive as inequities, such events would never be acceptable at Bucknell. Commerford said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, because it’s a discriminatory [pricing] policy.” He added, “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.” BUCC then came to FIRE for help.

President Bravman has promised FIRE that he is examining this issue, but he has not responded to FIRE’s September 1, 2010, letter.

“Anyone can see and hear for themselves the evidence that Bucknell administrators abused Bucknell policies to shut down BUCC’s expression,” said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. “FIRE will gladly take down the billboard if Bucknell simply changes the two policies that were abused. FIRE would be overjoyed to change the message on this electronic billboard from criticism to praise of President Bravman’s leadership.”

Meanwhile, people traveling to Bucknell on Route 15be it for Family Weekend at the beginning of October or Homecoming Weekend at the end of Octoberwill see the truth about Bucknell’s record on free speech on FIRE’s 10’6″ x 22’9″ billboard.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation 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 at Bucknell University and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

Tell Bucknell University that it’s time to respect student free speech! Send a letter to President Bravman today.

CONTACT:
Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org
John C. Bravman, President, Bucknell University: 570-577-1515; john.bravman@bucknell.edu

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