UMass Amherst: Frequent Student Rights Violations and Unconstitutional Policies Ensure Place on ’12 Worst’ List

By on February 4, 2011

When looking for another six schools to join the six schools on our Red Alert list and round out our "12 Worst Schools for Free Speech" feature for The Huffington Post, we had to think long and hard about whether or not to include the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Waitno we didn’t.

When it comes to free speech issues, UMass Amherst has a rap sheet a mile long. Its mixture of restrictive written policies and numerous run-ins with the First Amendmentand FIREmade this decision about as hard as deciding if LeBron James might make a good addition to your pickup basketball team.

Let’s go over the many ways UMass has violated student rights over the years:

  • In 2001, a few weeks after the September 11 attacks, a group of students held an anti-war rally to protest the use of force by the U.S. military in the middle east. The protest went smoothly. Shortly after that, however, when a group of pro-war students attempted to hold a rally in the same location, UMass Amherst revoked the group’s permit two days before the event was to be held. When the students held the rally anyway, their materials were vandalized with no consequences for the offenders.
  • In 2004, at a party following UMass Amherst’s student government elections, some partygoers drew a caricature on a whiteboard portraying a defeated candidate as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, holding a burning cross and labeling him as a "Grand Wizard." Photos of the caricature were widely circulated around the UMass Amherst campus and on the Internet. In spite of the fact that this caricature was meant to mock tactics used by students who had called the candidate a racist during the election, several students were charged with multiple disciplinary violations, including "Harassment Conduct Less Than a Physical Attack." Despite FIRE’s efforts, the students involved were forced to resign from their leadership positions in UMass Amherst’s Student Government Association.
  • In 2009, the conservative student newspaper The Minuteman published an issue which ran a highly critical feature on the student leadership organization Student Bridges. Photo and video evidence clearly shows Student Bridges members, including group president Vanessa Snow, wresting stacks of the publication from the hands of a student trying to ensure that Student Bridges would not steal the entire run of the paper. One photograph showed Snowwho was criticized by name in the piecestanding defiantly with one foot on top of a stack of the papers. The blatant theft of the paper, meanwhile, took place as a uniformed police officer stood by and did nothing. Gallingly, UMass Amherst’s Student Government Association attempted to punish The Minuteman by passing a resolution calling for a loss of recognition unless it apologized for running the feature. Thankfully, the UMass administration threw this punishment out, recognizing it as a blatant attack on the free speech rights of The Minuteman.
  • Also in 2009, UMass Amherst’s Republican Club learned of another group’s plans to protest an upcoming speech by conservative columnist Don Feder. The UMass Police Department pressured the group to accept increased security fees on top of those it had already agreed to pay. Reluctantly, the Republicans agreed to pay the extra fee of $444.52. Despite this extra protection, protesters shouted down Feder’s speech, while campus police did nothing to stop them. Under pressure from FIRE, UMass Amherst agreed to return the extra security fees it had sought from the group. 

And then there is the matter of UMass Amherst’s red-light speech codes. One particular policy has come under scrutiny of late, and rightfully so. UMass Amherst’s Policy on "Rallies" requires that students register their rallies a minimum of 24 hours in advance, and that all rallies taking place during school hours be confined to the steps of UMass Amherst’s student unionand this on a campus of 27,000 students. And that’s if your rally at UMass Amherst isn’t deemed to be "controversial." Under that comically burdensome restriction, "[s]pace for controversial rallies must be requested 5 working days prior to the scheduled date" and "[s]pace may only be reserved from 12 noon to 1 pm." And that’s still not the end of it. The policy also requires that for "controversial" rallies, "[t]he sponsoring RSO [Registered Student Organization] must designate at least 6 members to act as a security team." For all the detailed restrictions about what these "controversial" rallies can’t do, you’d think that UMass Amherst would make some effort to define "controversial," but they choose not to. Instead, UMass Amherst administrators have unfettered discretion to determine which speech deserves that undesirable label. Not surprisingly, this policy was named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Year for 2010.

So there you have it. UMass Amherst: On paper, its policies fail to pass constitutional muster, and in practice, well … see the above. Needless to say, it’s right at home on our list of the worst schools for free speech.

Schools: University of Massachusetts – Amherst