Ohio University Student Reporter Exposes Administrators’ Selective Memories

By on January 7, 2010

Ohio University (OU) student reporter Rebecca McKinsey does my home state proud with an excellent article in the university’s student newspaper, The Post, about FIRE’s red-light rating of Ohio University and its comparable ratings of other Ohio schools.

Most noteworthy is the research that McKinsey evidently did for the article, which produced some very interesting quotes from university officials. In response to FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley’s objections to OU’s unconstitutional speech codes, such as its ban on any act that "demeans, degrades, disgraces any person" (a series of terms that seems to have been selected primarily for its catchy rhythmic cadence, because it certainly has no basis in law), we get this fascinating set of statements:

Although OU administrators appreciate FIRE’s input and consider the organization’s objections, the policies in question were written with legal standards in mind, said Becky Watts, OU’s chief of staff to President Roderick McDavis.

"We have a very robust policy development review process that has the voices of students, faculty and staff involved. It is because of that robust process that we can all have confidence that our policies reflect the concerns and needs of all of those groups," she said.

One very important part of that process, Watts emphasized, is the legal review each policy undergoes to ensure it complies with federal and state law. Policymakers work with OU’s General Coun[se]l John Biancamano to verify the legality of each new provision.

"Every policy has weaknesses and can be improved," said Biancamano, who serves as both OU’s general coun[se]l and director of Legal Affairs. "We feel that our policies comply with the law and that they have been developed to serve the best interests of all the members of the university community."

Biancamano may "feel" that OU’s policies comply with the Constitution, but they don’t. Ohio University is a public university funded by taxpayers and is therefore an arm of the government. And the government, as FIRE never tires of pointing out, is not permitted to forbid "demeaning" someone on a public campus any more than it can tell Presidential candidates that they may not "demean" their opponents’ records, or late-night comedians that they may not demean Jon Gosselin, disgrace "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or degrade Tiger Woods. As the Supreme Court has written:

[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, "[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools." Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) [internal citations omitted].

For even more context, here are some other things that the powers that be at Ohio University feel they can ban: "uninvited sexual comments or innuendo," "anecdotes about gender specific traits," and "sexual leering." (Non-sexual leering is evidently permissible.) Students are also "expected to be responsible members of a diverse community, and to honor and respect differences of culture, lifestyle, and religion"—even though to most people not living on the topmost floor of the ivory tower, asking, for instance, that Muslims on campus "honor and respect" Satanism might be asking just a little too much.
The whole article is worth a read. Especially entertaining was this part:

FIRE has also coordinated litigation against the State University of New York at Brockport, Shippensburg University, Texas Tech University, San Francisco State University and Temple University. The majority of these schools expressed a common belief that FIRE’s intervention was unnecessary and did not have a large impact.

Yeah, totally impact-free, frivolous litigation. Except that each of these schools got sued in federal court, and each of these schools either flat-out lost its case or chose to settle and drop its censorship policies. You can read about all of these "unnecessary" victories here.
Most brazen, though, was this:

In 2003, FIRE was involved in changing free speech zone policies at Citrus College in California. Jeanne Hamilton, the school’s vice president of Student Services, said there were no notable changes on campus after the policies were revised, adding the situation was exaggerated. 

"(FIRE) clearly was an organization in search of a cause," she said. "Their claims were very distorted."

Wow. I’m not sure if Ms. Hamilton was employed by Citrus College in 2003, but even if she was, she apparently could use a refresher on FIRE’s interaction with her school.

Let’s revisit what happened at Citrus College. Here’s a snippet of FIRE’s press release on this case from 2003:

The "free speech areas," established in 2002, make more than 99% of the campus a censorship area. The policy allows free speech in three small remote areas of the campus. Speakers who express themselves outside of the designated areas actually are arrested, and students face suspension or expulsion merely for engaging in protected speech and activity.

The policy requires notification to the College Security Office not only of one’s intent to use "free speech areas," but even the content of one’s message. No amplification equipment may be used. 

[Student and plaintiff Chris] Stevens directly experienced Citrus College’s censorship when he sought to hold a "Pro-America" rally and again when he sought to protest Governor Gray Davis’ education budget. Stevens was warned that, as an individual, he was limited to the "free speech areas." According to the lawsuit, Arnold Rollin, associate dean of students, told Stevens that he would be arrested and expelled if he held any event outside of these areas. Citrus ignored Stevens’ petitions to modify the policy.

[...]

Citrus prohibits "indecent" and "offensive…expression or language." Its definition of sexual harassment includes "words…of a sexual nature."…

Citrus College clearly was not kidding around when it came to censorship. FIRE publicized the case and connected Stevens with noted civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf. Realizing that fighting against the First Amendment in court would be a mistake, Citrus’ Board of Trustees quickly woke up and revoked the speech codes at issue just over two weeks later:

The lawsuit against Citrus College was filed on May 20, 2003. On June 5, 2003, the Citrus College Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution revoking the policies. The Board also revoked another policy that, though not a part of the lawsuit, had been identified to the College by FIRE as a target for legal challenge. That policy had outlawed "offensive… expression or language."

Let’s recap for Ms. Hamilton. Before FIRE: "Step out of this tiny free speech zone and we will arrest you and boot you out of school." After FIRE: "Oh, wait, this is the United States of America." Seems pretty different to me, but then I know how the facts looked before they went through Jeanne Hamilton’s Amazing History Rewriting Machine. 

Major thanks to Rebecca McKinsey and The Post for this great reporting. These are some rocks that deserved to be turned over.

Schools: Ohio University