How Can Bucknell University Get Off FIRE’s Red Alert List?

By on September 21, 2009

Having posed this question regarding Brandeis University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University—the other five schools on FIRE’s Red Alert List—we today turn to the newest member of the list, Bucknell University. Today’s press release—and its spot on the list—was earned by its continuous and unrepentant censorship of the activities of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC).

Bucknell’s troubles started in March when Bucknell administrator Judith Mickanis prevented BUCC from distributing "Obama stimulus dollars," which bore an image of President Obama on the front and read "Obama’s stimulus plan makes your money as worthless as monopoly money" on the back. The next month, Associate Dean of Students Gerald Commerford shut down BUCC’s "affirmative action bake sale," then told BUCC that such an act of political protest was not welcome in the public areas of Bucknell’s campus. Commerford even suggested that any attempt to debate the issue on campus would fall under Bucknell’s control.

Both Mickanis and Commerford relied on highly flawed, if not dishonest, readings of Bucknell’s Sales and Solicitation policy to shut down BUCC’s activities. Mickanis, telling BUCC members that they were "busted," claimed that BUCC needed to fill out the proper paperwork if they planned to continue their activities, despite the fact that BUCC was not selling or soliciting anything except their ideas—an American tradition predating our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Mickanis placed BUCC’s stimulus dollars in league with handing out Bibles, another supposedly illicit activity which likewise did not fall under the policy.

Commerford, on the other hand, shut down BUCC’s bake sale by citing a discrepancy between the prices it was charging for its goods and the prices listed on its Sales and Solicitation form (which were higher than what BUCC was charging), and claimed this gave him the "opportunity" to shut BUCC down. When BUCC reapplied in an attempt to meet Commerford’s concern, Commerford changed course—this time telling BUCC members that their bake sale violated university policies against discrimination, even if BUCC made clear that all prices were optional and satirical. In truth, such bake sales happen at colleges across the country and are protected as legitimate speech, not shut down as somehow discriminatory. Commerford even told BUCC members that the only acceptable form of debate on affirmative action at Bucknell would be in a forum meeting Bucknell’s specifications, telling them "it needs to be debated in its proper forum, ok, and not on the public property of the campus."

FIRE twice wrote to Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell, calling for him to correct these blatant violations of its free speech promises and distortions of its policies. FIRE’s first letter was met with a false and deceptive response from General Counsel Wayne Bromfield, upholding Bucknell’s rationale for silencing BUCC’s activities. Bromfield’s response to FIRE’s second letter stated, effectively, that Bucknell refused to engage FIRE further on the issue, claiming that FIRE had provided no new information even though we had pointed out to him that our claims were documented on both audio and video as well as in writing. After FIRE wrote to Bucknell’s Board of Trustees (we have received no response), Bucknell University was added to FIRE’s Red Alert list.

Bucknell has not acknowledged its blatant and heavy-handed suppression of core political speech. In fact, as our press release points out today, Bucknell has taken steps to tighten the screws even further, by quietly expanding and re-branding its Sales and Solicitation policy. The new "Sales and Promotions" policy now ambiguously covers promotions that "promote … causes if they do not violate other provisions of the Student Handbook." As Adam noted previously, the policy also vests in the administration significant discretion to decide who may be exempted from the policy and who may not, and leaves open the question of whether prior approval will be required for such fundamental American activities as distributing handbills. It seems that the policy was rewritten in order to prohibit speech such as BUCC’s protests without prior permission. Anyone familiar with the BUCC case and the documentary evidence should be highly skeptical of the administration’s ability to neutrally enforce the new policy.

It is not only BUCC’s speech that is under threat at Bucknell. Indeed, a culture of fear seems to pervade the campus, to the extent that The Bucknellian, a supposedly independent student newspaper, declined to print an ad from FIRE criticizing the Bucknell administration—and criticizing Dean Commerford in particular. The Bucknellian‘s concern, articulated by Editor in Chief Lenore Flower, was that the ad "might be construed as libel." The Bucknellian apparently was not swayed by the fact that the ad, which only reflects FIRE’s opinion, cannot possibly meet any legal definition of libel. It seems that The Bucknellian just wants to stay out of trouble with a dangerous administration.

Many inches of column space here on the Torch and elsewhere—including the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer and, most recently, my column in Human Events with BUCC President Travis Eaione—have been devoted to Bucknell University’s repressive actions. So what does Bucknell need to do to get off FIRE’s Red Alert list? The answer is simple. All it must do is live up to the promises of free speech it makes to its students, and demonstrate its willingness to allow the unfettered debate of controversial issues—such as affirmative action—in the public areas of the campus, without requiring prior administrative approval. That means (1) making clear that the new policy does not require prior approval for speech that on any public campus would constitute protected expression, such as distributing "Obama stimulus dollars," and (2) reversing the oppressive decision that controversial political speech like "affirmative action bake sales" may not be expressed in public and must meet Bucknell administrators’ arbitrary standards. 

These announcements would require nothing from the administration except the bravery and common sense of making the campus safe for freedom of speech. Until then, Bucknell remains on FIRE’s Red Alert list, and FIRE will be telling prospective students to think twice before applying for admission.

Schools: Bucknell University