Students Fight for Free Speech at Pitzer Despite Facing Hurdles on Campus

By on December 7, 2012

Even though it has a staggering number of colleges and universities rated in FIRE’s Spotlight database, the state of California has not a single "green light" institution—that is, a school free of any publicly available speech codes. This includes Pitzer College, a private institution that is part of California’s Claremont University Consortium. As an article earlier this week in the student newspaper the Claremont Port Side reports, some students at Pitzer have begun to campaign for improvements in Pitzer’s policies regulating student speech. However, the article also shows that these champions for free speech face some impediments on campus to achieving their objectives.

As the Port Side reports, students Jon Rice and Sebastian Aguiar have introduced an initiative aimed at reforming Pitzer’s three "yellow light" speech codes. The initiative, which includes policy revision language put together in consultation with FIRE, gained the endorsement of Pitzer’s Student Senate. Now, Pitzer’s College Council must decide whether to approve and implement those policy changes, which would be sufficient to improve Pitzer to an overall green light rating-an achievement that would be worthy of much celebration.

The Port Side gets Aguiar’s take on why the initiative is necessary and why reforming the speech codes would be a significant achievement for the school: 

"We realized that there is risk of a First Amendment violation in the current language, and [that] everyone, including the administration, would benefit from more explicitly rights-protecting language," said Aguiar.

Aguiar added that Pitzer would be the first college in California to achieve "green light" status, and would become one of only fifteen other four-year colleges and universities across the country that FIRE believes fully protect student speech rights. 

However, the article reveals some pushback from one of the members of the college administration, Dean of Students Moya Carter:

Carter supports free speech on campus but is not convinced that a "green light" ranking from FIRE would be of serious importance to Pitzer as an institution.

"We have an engaged, vibrant, vocal and communicative student body at Pitzer College that will remain that way regardless whether we receive a green light ranking or not," said Carter.

[...] 

"I want Pitzer students to engage in difficult conversations in and out of the classroom and have the ability to express themselves. But not at the expense of others who may feel targeted, threatened, humiliated, or afraid. Every institution must come together and make a decision on what makes sense for their community," said Carter. Despite these concerns, she said that she is interested and willing to explore the proposal further.

We’re glad that Dean Carter is interested in the issue and willing to explore Rice and Aguiar’s efforts further, but what she evidently fails to realize is that the continued maintenance of speech codes contradicts any institution’s avowed commitments to free speech, no matter how sincere. It may well be that Pitzer’s administration strives to protect students’ freedom of speech in practice, but it must ensure that that spirit is reflected in policy as well. A speech code is an ever-present invitation to administrative restriction of protected expression and, in the wrong hands, presents the threat of selective and viewpoint-based application. It also misinforms students of their free speech rights and places a harmful chilling effect on student dialogue and discussion.  

Likewise, it may be that Pitzer has "an engaged, vibrant, vocal and communicative student body," but that is no answer for the administration’s own failings in creating and maintaining institutional policy. As long as those three speech codes—policies addressing distribution of written materials on campus, student computer use, and bias-related incidents—remain on the books, students face the possibility of censorship and punishment for protected speech. 

Aguiar weighs in again in the Port Side, explaining why Pitzer’s speech codes violate the college’s legal and moral obligations under California’s "Leonard Law":

"The 1992 CA Leonard Law mandates that non-religious private schools cannot suppress the speech of students. Period. ‘Offensive’ speech is protected, with three exceptions: Incitement of violence, fighting words and harassment," said Aguiar. Students being singled out and made to feel uncomfortable for any reason is already prohibited under State and Federal law. "The problem is that 5C codes of conduct feature vague language that directly conflicts with California law and confers undue power to administrators… Giving school administrators license to determine what is offensive is a legitimate threat to student discourse." 

[...]

"This is not about getting a FIRE certification; their lawyers are merely a tool which Senate used to help draft a speech code that is legal. The current [code] is illegal and puts students at risk," said Aguiar. "Our hope is that nobody will be disciplined or intimidated for any expression protected under the Constitution. Free expression is the cornerstone of academic freedom, and we want to make that explicit."

Indeed, under the Leonard Law, each of Pitzer's three speech codes denies students their free speech rights as protected by both the federal and California constitutions. Pitzer should also be aware that the Leonard Law has in the past been invoked by a California state court to strike down a private university's speech code (in a 1995 decision involving Stanford University). Thus, I hope Pitzer is willing to work with Rice, Aguiar, and other students on campus who wish to improve the college's policies on student speech. These changes should be made not to appease us at FIRE, but because the school and the students will all be better off for it. Earning our green light rating would be icing on the cake.

Schools: Pitzer College