Rollins College Finds Success in the Marketplace of Ideas

By on March 30, 2011

Rollins College, a private university in Winter Park, Florida, near Orlando, has had a wonderful learning experience over the past week. The campus community has brought a wide diversity of perspectives to a controversial column titled "Illegal Babies Should [B]e Illegal Citizens" in the student newspaper, The Sandspur. According to a March 27 opinion piece by Mike Lafferty in the Orlando Sentinel, the columnist "argued that it was wrong for children to gain automatic citizenship when their parents are in this country illegally, and that taxpayers who are here legally shouldn’t have to pay for benefits that child might receive." The Sandspur included this illustration with the column (credited to Allie Osterloh):

As of this writing, the original column has 338 comments, the first of which is from a Rollins professor who documents what she calls "a number of factual problems with [the columnist's] argument." The immediately following comments address the professor’s data and sources, some agreeing, some disagreeing, and some providing alternative sources. Of course, plenty of other comments there are more like, well, just comments, or just expressing emotion. Still, even at the level of comments on a student newspaper column, it looks like the marketplace of ideas is healthy at Rollins.

A couple of faculty members weighed in by using their privilege of sending mass emails to the whole campus via a list set up by Rollins for mass emails. When I was on campus yesterday, I learned that students used to have this privilege, too, but the stream of mass emails had became too burdensome (before the present controversy) and the students had lost that privilege. I also learned that some people at Rollins have complained that students were not able to respond to the mass emails from the professors with mass emails of their own. (Justin Braun, former editor-in-chief of The Sandspurhas more.) It will be interesting to see how that debate plays out.

Making matters even better for dialogue at Rollins, hundreds of members of the campus community reportedly attended a public forum about the issues last Thursday (at which Lafferty spoke). Braun reported that attendees "were advised to focus their comments on the issue at handthat of responsible journalismand not make speeches based on personal opinions." But when I asked about it yesterday, a professor told me that it seemed like a truly open forum where everyone had a chance to express views about the content of the column and illustration as well as the issues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press that were raised by the controversy. (Again, Braun has more.)

Lafferty also interviewed our own Will Creeley for the Sentinel:

"We receive case after case after case," said Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. "Typically someone is offended and believes they have a right not to be offended."

The good news at Rollins is that this one didn’t become a FIRE case. Indeed, as Lafferty notes, "the openness of Thursday’s forum suggests the college has an enlightened viewpoint on freedom of speech."

Rollins actually promises students the same free speech rights that they would have at a public university under the Constitution. On page six of the Code of Community Standards, Rollins promises in its "Discrimination & Harassment" policy that "Rollins College does not limit constitutionally protected speech." Now, we see promises like that all the time, but they don’t mean that a college actually comes through on its promise by having no speech codes elsewhere. Most colleges don’t come throughincluding the six public universities in Florida at which I have been speaking since last week. We haven’t yet evaluated the rest of the speech policies in place at Rollins. At least recently, however, Rollins has been a noble example of the marketplace of ideas in action.