FIRE’s Letter to Claremont University Consortium Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Walton, March 18, 2008

By March 18, 2008

Robert A. Walton, Chief Executive Officer
The Claremont University Consortium
150 E. Eighth Street
Claremont, California 91711

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (909-621-8517)

Dear Mr. Walton:

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

FIRE is concerned about the chilling effect on free speech caused by several announcements made by administrators in response to student expression at The Claremont Colleges.

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

On February 1, Scripps College Dean of Students Debra Wood e-mailed all Scripps students in response to advertisements for a “White Party” at which participants were encouraged to wear white clothing. The advertisements included scantily clad African American women. Wood’s e-mail claimed that the advertisements harm “not only women and African Americans, but all of us here at the colleges and undermines our educational efforts.” Wood urged other campuses “to take a similar stand against racism and sexism” by “refusing to tolerate this kind of treatment of members of our communities.” In a later interview in voice, the Scripps student newspaper, Wood argued in her official capacity as dean that the students who distributed the advertisements needed re-education:

I hope that CMC [Claremont McKenna College] students will learn appropriate means of advertising. And it is not a topic that can be addressed one year and stopped, as new groups of students enter our college annually. High school students may not [have] been educated or educated sufficiently on these topics, and we will continually face the need to use education early on to prevent these kind of errors.

In a second incident on or about February 7, Harvey Mudd College Dean of Students Jeanne Noda e-mailed all students to note that someone had written “Hillary is a foxy lesbian” on a whiteboard. According to Noda,

It seems that the student residents wrote this message as part of a joke, without thinking about the impact it might have on others. It refers to a prominent public figure. The message has been erased. Campus Safety has been notified.

In a third incident, Scripps College Associate Dean of Students Staci Buchwald e-mailed all students on March 10 to note that “a person wrote a cultural epithet and offensive drawing on the write and wipe board of a student’s room.” Buchwald asked students to provide information about the “perpetrator.” She added that

We are a supportive, caring community and bias related incidents will not be tolerated. Any time a community member becomes aware of a racist, sexist, heterosexist bias incident on our campus, a potential bias incident or hate crime, or any other type of crime, they are urged to [take] appropriate action to combat the incident.

It seems that even such a minor incident as writing on a whiteboard generates e-mails such as these. What is more, an intercampus agreement apparently requires that such e-mails be communicated to students of all five Claremont Colleges.

Taken together, these incidents show a concerted effort on the part of Claremont College administrators to pressure students to censor their expression. Even if those responsible for the controversial expression were not ultimately punished, the responses that were sent out to the Claremont College communityincluding references to notifying campus safety and to taking “appropriate action” in response to protected expressionare likely to have a profound chilling effect on speech at the five colleges.

Equally alarming, some students would like to see administrators go even further. On February 15, voice reported that the Scripps Asian-American Student Union “would like the phrase ‘bias incident’ to be reworked [and] would like to see bias incidents referred to as hate crimes.”

As we wrote to Pomona College President David Oxtoby on November 29, 2007, such announcements by administrators and students violate the spirit of free speech which Oxtoby and others at The Claremont Colleges have claimed to champion. In his 2004 convocation remarks, Oxtoby stated:

First, the College must be a safe space that encourages and welcomes speaking out, in classrooms and dormitories, between faculty and students, wherever education is taking place. That freedom to speak and express opinions, sometimes in opposition to a majority consensus, is the way in which we build community and achieve change.

Second, Pomona must and does welcome a diversity of opinion in our community. We are not threatened by difference, and no education takes place if what others say is identical to what we think ourselves. We are only threatened by silence, by reluctance to express opinions.

Third, speech by itself accomplishes nothing unless it is heard. Each of us in the community must be open to the speech of others, listening seriously and being willing to be persuaded. Hearing takes every bit as much effort as speaking, and is just as important. Maybe we need to add a “listening requirement” to the “speaking requirement” we now have as part of our curriculum.

In addition, the Claremont Colleges promise free speech to their students. For example, Scripps’s official 2007-2008 student handbook, the Guide to Student Life, asserts:

Scripps believes that learning and teaching thrive in an environment conducive to freedom of belief, inquiry, and speech, assuring expression of the broadest range of opinions and beliefs. Scripps commits itself to maintaining that freedom, subject only to regulation of time, place, and manner. Recognizing that such expressions may offend, provoke, and disturb, Scripps affirms its dedication to encourage rather than limit expression.

Pomona’s Student Handbook 2007-2008, under “Disciplinary Policies and Procedures,” also notes:

Free Speech requirements protect many forms of “hateful” and intolerant speech and expressive conduct, including that which occurs during such common College activities as debates, speeches, arguments, conversations, classroom discussions, lectures, distribution of flyers and displaying of posters. In certain contexts, courts have found speech and expressive conduct to be protected that many in our community would find repugnant, including such things as display of the confederate flag, nazi symbols, cross burning, and flag burning. Such speech and expressive conduct, however, may be inconsistent with the College’s community values and it may present an opportunity for open dialogue, debate and better understanding [of] the scope of protected speech and the role of tolerance in a community.

These statements in favor of free speechindeed, of promoting more rather than less expression in the case of “hateful” expression or other expression deemed objectionableare endangered by those who would ask for allegedly biased expression to be classified as a hate crime and by those administrators who take it upon themselves to investigate such expression and imply that the perpetrators should be silenced, re-educated, or even punished for their expression. Moreover, California’s Leonard Law legally protects the free speech of students at secular, private colleges.

To prevent speech at The Claremont Colleges from being impermissibly chilled, we ask that you clarify to students and administrators at all of the colleges that protected expression may never and will never be investigated or punished. Because of the demonstrated threats to free speech outlined above, we request a response from you by April 8, 2008.

Sincerely,

Adam Kissel
Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

cc:

Pamela Brooks Gann, President, Claremont McKenna College
Maria Klawe, President, Harvey Mudd College
Laura Skandera Trombley, President, Pitzer College
David W. Oxtoby, President, Pomona College
Frederick Weis, Interim President, Scripps College
Debra Carlson Wood, Vice President and Dean of Students, Scripps College
Staci Buchwald, Associate Dean of Students, Scripps College
Jeanne Noda, Vice President and Dean of Students, Harvey Mudd College

Download file "FIRE's Letter to Claremont University Consortium Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Walton, March 18, 2008"

Schools: Claremont University Consortium Cases: Claremont University Consortium: Free Speech Silenced by Administrators