Free Speech Suffers a Near-Miss at LSU

By February 9, 2006

Louisiana State University (LSU) has dropped all charges against senior Collins Phillips, who had been accused of violating the student code of conduct for criticizing the university.

As an article in Baton Rouge’s The Advocate explains, at a January 3 meeting of the Student Equality Commission (SEC), Phillips, who last year protested displays of the confederate flag at LSU tailgate parties, called LSU administrators “lazy” for offering too few events for Black History Month, and criticized LSU’s delinquency in operating the African American Cultural Center.

Instead of listening to criticism from the students for whom she supposedly works, Vice President for Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert brought charges against Phillips for making false public statements and trying to harass or intimidate. LSU failed to explain exactly which rules Phillips’s statements had violated, and Phillips told The Advocate, “You can see [Albert] just didn’t like what I said.”

Phillips had his hearing this past Monday, and the university, no doubt reacting to public attention from the press and the Louisiana ACLU, dropped all charges. As LSU’s Daily Reveille reported on Tuesday:

Phillips said he was presented with paperwork that explained when and where each violation occurred that dated back to last semester’s Confederate flag protest.

“It disturbed me that every centimeter of a move that the [Student Equality Commission] made was being documented,” Phillips said.

Several times throughout Phillips’ interview, Phillips told The Daily Reveille that he was frustrated because he could not say what he wanted without fear of consequence.

Phillips said this ordeal has shattered his faith in First Amendment rights “because no one takes them seriously.”

“When you’re told to watch what you say even though you can say it, when you’re told to watch how you think even though you can think it—when you’re told that, it’s hard to believe in First Amendment rights,” Phillips said.

Even though the hearing did not result in disciplinary action, the fact that LSU even initiated the hearing process and has kept tabs on Phillips’s actions could have the effect of discouraging students in the future from protesting injustices or even getting involved with certain campus organizations. Phillips’s words exemplify the chilling effect that unjustifiable persecution, or even the threat of persecution, can have on free speech. LSU has given students reason to fear expressing their opinions or working toward goals they deem important.

Angeletta Gourdine, director of LSU’s African and African American studies program, summarized the shame that LSU should feel when she said, “This situation appears to challenge that larger institutional history of what universities are for and mark LSU as hostile to the idea that students should be able to participate in the university marketplace free from coercion and intimidation.”

Schools: Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge