How Did DePaul University Get on FIRE’s ‘Worst 12′ List?

By on January 28, 2011

Hopefully by now you’ve seen FIRE’s picks for "The 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech" at The Huffington Post. Six of them were relatively obvious choicesthose being the six schools currently on FIRE’s Red Alert list, the "worst of the worst," as we often say.

Given the hundreds of other schools out there, many with one or more red-light speech codes as rated in FIRE’s Spotlight database, what went into deciding which others made our "dirty dozen"? Well, repeat run-ins with FIRE, repeated free speech offenses over the years, and having incredibly bad speech codes that violate clear promises of free speech are great ways for a college to proclaim its candidacy, and by that yardstick DePaul University was a shoo-in.

DePaul, a Catholic university in Chicago, and the only private religious institution on our list, stands as a reminder that a university’s chosen religious identity does not exempt it from scrutiny by FIRE. DePaul is one of the many religious universitiesincluding Georgetown University, Boston College, and University of Notre Dame, to name a fewthat promise freedom of speech and inquiry to their students and faculty even though such speech may not always fall in line with their religious tradition. When universities make free speech or free association promises and fail (recent examples include Georgetown’s ongoing refusal to recognize a pro-choice student group and BC’s refusal to allow Bill Ayers to speak on its campus), FIRE steps in to remind these schools that once they have promised students freedom of expression, they must deliver. At DePaul, FIRE’s efforts have been met with particular stubbornness over the years.

Most recently, DePaul refused to recognize a student group called Students for Cannabis Policy Reform (SCPR). In September 2010, having already delayed the group’s application process several months, it told the group that allowing SCPR to be officially recognized on campus "would send an institutional message that [Vice President for Student Affairs James R. Doyle] believes we are not prepared to manage," rendering completely worthless DePaul’s statement that "By remaining open to a broad range of ideas and opinions, we foster mutual understanding, test our beliefs and create the most effective conditions for seeking knowledge."

When FIRE pointed out the hypocrisy of DePaul’s discrimination against SCPR, the university changed its tune, now saying that recognized student groups at DePaul must "be congruent with our institutional goals regarding the health and well-being of our students." DePaul further argued that rejecting the group’s recognition was justified because of "[c]onsiderable research indicat[ing] that the use of cannabis does not contribute to healthy decision-making, particularly in college-age populations." How SCPRwhose stated mission is to educate the community about perceived flaws in current drug policy, not to use or advocate the use of cannabiswould somehow endanger the well-being of the community was not articulated; indeed, it was unfounded.

This is hardly the only black mark on DePaul’s free speech record. In 2006, DePaul pursued harassment charges against members of a conservative student group that held an "affirmative action bake sale," and might have gotten away with it if FIRE had not intervened. The students were found not to be harassers, but instead they were found guilty of failing to disclose in advance that their bake sale would be in protest of affirmative action policies. It looks like DePaul simply wanted to punish them one way or another because of their message.

In 2004, DePaul suspended Professor Thomas Klocek without due process after he engaged in an argument on Israeli-Palestinian affairs with members of the student groups Students for Justice in Palestine and United Muslims Moving Ahead. After the groups complained to the university about his role in the argument, DePaul suspended Klocek without offering him a hearing, allowing him to see the charges that had been filed against him, or allowing him to confront his accusers; he would never teach at DePaul again. The next year, the DePaul College Republicans were prohibited from posting flyers protesting a lecture to be given at DePaul by University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, citing a vague ban on "propaganda" that DePaul seemingly had conjured from thin aira ban that was eventually lifted under pressure from FIRE.

In a 2006 press release, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff lamented DePaul’s "terrible habit of praising free speech with one side of its mouth and denying it with the other." More pointedly but with equal accuracy, he described DePaul on Hannity and Colmes as "a basket case" when it comes to freedom of expression.

Little wonder that DePaul should find itself on the undistinguished list of the 12 worst colleges in America for free speech.

Stay tuned to The Torch to learn more about what some of the other featured universities did to earn their places alongside DePaul, and be sure to read through the full list at The Huffington Post.

Schools: DePaul University Cases: DePaul University: Discrimination against Student Organization DePaul University: Shutdown of Affirmative Action Bake Sale Protest DePaul University: Censorship of Student Group Protesting Ward Churchill DePaul University: Professor Suspended for Expression Without Due Process