First Amendment Chaos at UMass Amherst

By on April 16, 2009

Our press release today explains how multiple First Amendment violations have rocked the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus in recent days. UMass has done nothing about the videotaped theft of and, later, the student government’s official censorship of The Minuteman, a conservative campus newspaper that mocked a student government official. Worse, last night, when a student senator offered a bill to reverse the unconstitutional censorship of The Minuteman, the Senate’s speaker had the UMass police throw him out (video of this incident is expected soon). These assaults on free speech came in the wake of last month’s disgraceful episode in which a speech by columnist Don Feder was shouted down by hecklers while UMass police officers did nothing.

As Greg states in the press release, "The situation at UMass has spiraled out of control." He adds, "UMass’ offenses against the Constitution are legion. So far, it has done nothing after copies of a student newspaper were stolen because the paper mocked a student government official, it has stood by while the student government unconstitutionally censored the newspaper, and it has allowed its police to be used to silence a free speech advocate."

Mob censorship through the theft of newspapers is a recurring problem on America’s campuses. Here’s the video recording of the most recent such newspaper theft, the one at UMass Amherst. Shockingly, it depicts a UMass police officer idly standing by as hundreds of copies of The Minuteman are stolen out of the hands of a student intending to distribute the paper. The audio makes clear that the student gives no permission for the theft and, in fact, asks the person making the recording to make sure that FIRE gets a copy of the recording of the theft.

One of the individuals who stole the papers, shown in photographs and in the longer version of the video as first standing on a stack of papers and then grabbing them out of the other student’s hands, has been identified to FIRE as Vanessa Snow, the leader of UMass’ Student Bridges organization, a powerful campus organization strongly supported by the UMass Amherst Student Government Association (SGA). Snow was ridiculed by name in that issue of The Minuteman.

As if the theft was not enough, The Minuteman‘s mockery of Snow also resulted in official censorship. Last week, the SGA passed a resolution demanding that The Silent Majority, the student organization that publishes The Minuteman, publicly apologize to Vanessa Snow for its constitutionally protected mockery of her, or else face loss of recognition by the SGA, which would shut down both the organization and the paper. At the request of The Silent Majority, FIRE wrote to UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert C. Holub urging that the coerced speech and threat of punishment be rescinded immediately.

But the student government outdid itself last night after student senator Derek Khanna tried to place a resolution on the SGA agenda that would have rescinded the SGA’s unconstitutional decree of press censorship. SGA Senate Speaker Shaun Robinson not only refused to hear Khanna’s resolution but reportedly threw it on the floor, soon calling the police to eject Khanna from the SGA meeting after Khanna insisted that he be heard. Video of this incident is expected soon and will be posted on our website when it becomes available.

As I state in the press release, not only has the SGA decided to unconstitutionally censor the press, it tried to do so through the unconstitutional method of coercing speech, and then it threw out the one person in the student government who was standing up strongly for constitutional rights. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the SGA could have more thoroughly abused the First Amendment and humiliated UMass.

UMass Amherst and Chancellor Holub must act immediately to rein in the SGA’s outrageous behavior before it results in further embarrassment and legal liability for the university.

UMass’ spate of free speech problems on campus began in February, when a large group of students calling itself the Coalition Against Hate posted flyers inviting people to protest at a speech by columnist Don Feder that was to be hosted by the Republican Club. In response, the UMass Police Department pressured the Republican Club into paying an additional $444.52 for extra security at the event due to the threatened protest. The club agreed to pay the money, but the organized hecklers nevertheless disrupted Feder’s speech. (Video of the disrupted event is also available online.)

Having been charged extra for security that was not even effective, the Republican Club contacted us for help. We wrote UMass, reminding the university of the Supreme Court’s holding in a 1992 decision that "[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob." After Robert also published an op-ed in The Boston Globe, UMass publicly relented in a letter to the Globe. The letter announced that UMass would return the excess fee but deceptively claimed that UMass had only charged more money because of greater anticipated attendance at Feder’s lecture.

But if you ask me, UMass’ deceptive claim that it charged more for security only because of greater anticipated attendance fails to mention the fact that the university knew that attendance was greater only because a large number of students attended to protest and disrupt the event. A policy of charging a group for extra security when large numbers of people plan to disrupt an event will only encourage hecklers to shut down further events at UMass.

Take action: Tell Chancellor Holub to preserve order and student rights on campus, and tell Shaun Robinson that the SGA must follow its own rules and respect the First Amendment.

Schools: University of Massachusetts – Amherst