‘Shelby Star’ on CVCC and Free Speech

By October 19, 2011

The case of Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) student Marc Bechtol, who was banned from campus for a Facebook post about the school’s aggressive marketing of a debit card company to its students, has garnered a significant amount of attention from the media. We’re glad that with this reaction and pressure from FIRE, Marc Bechtol’s charges were dropped and he is allowed on campus once again.

Yesterday, the media attention continued, as the Shelby Star in Cleveland County, N.C., ran an interesting article pointing out that if the incident had occurred at nearby Cleveland Community College (CCC), Bechtol would apparently have been in violation of CCC’s code of conduct. Star reporter Jordan-Ashley Baker spoke with CCC spokeswoman Margo Greene, who said, "Just as CVCC, if we had something like this happen, it would be a student code of conduct violation versus a Facebook/freedom of speech issue. Based on (Bechtol’s) comments, he was violating the (CCC) code of conduct." Baker went on to report that

Green said Bechtol’s comments specifically violated CCC’s code because of "the intentional disruption of College activities and operations of the College."

Bechtol told WSOC-TV that his comments were satirical and he was exercising his right to free speech.

The CCC policy bans, "Intentional obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration or disciplinary proceedings, or other College activities, including public service functions and other duly authorized activities on College premises. This includes any inappropriate behavior that interferes with the operations of the College."

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Greene cited the "Student Responsibilities" section as guidelines to how CCC students should conduct themselves. That section of college policy states, "Cleveland Community College reserves the right to maintain a safe and orderly educational environment for students, faculty and staff. Therefore, when, in the judgment of college officials, a student‘s conduct disrupts or threatens to disrupt the college community, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken to restore and protect the sanctity of the community."

Herein lies the problem. As was the case at CVCC, this takes a far too expansive view of what constitutes obstruction or disruption, as it stretches common sense past the breaking point to argue that a comment like the one made by Bechtol rises to the level of actual obstruction or disruption of the college’s functions.

In addition, Greene states that because such behavior is prohibited in CCC’s code of conduct, it isn’t a free speech issue; but just because something is listed in the code doesn’t mean it’s not protected speech. FIRE Associate Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Azhar Majeed told Baker that "freedom of speech plays a critical role in empowering students and making the school a better institution," stating further:

"If you’re making your fellow students or other people on campus aware of a problem, then that should be encouraged if anything, not punished," Majeed said. "… It’s one thing to take down a post that you don’t like on your college’s own Facebook page. It’s another thing to bring that student up on disorderly conduct charges or disruption charges."

Indeed, it’s baffling to think-given the hammering CVCC took from the media and First Amendment advocates for punishing Bechtol-that Cleveland Community College, or any other institution, would follow CVCC’s lead in a similar situation. What does CCC expect would happen if it punished a student for posting a mild criticism of the school on its Facebook page? Should it find itself on the wrong end of a First Amendment case, after the cautionary tale presented by CVCC, it would have no one but itself to blame.

Thanks to the Shelby Star for shedding further light on this case. Evidently, it is still much needed.

Schools: Catawba Valley Community College Cases: Catawba Valley Community College: Student Banned from Campus after Protesting College’s Deal with Debit Card Company on Facebook