Victory for First Amendment Rights at UMass Amherst: Administration Rejects Censorship of Newspaper

By April 23, 2009

Under pressure from FIRE, University of Massachusetts Amherst has rejected the student government’s official censorship of The Minuteman, a conservative campus newspaper that mocked a student government official. In addition, FIRE has learned that UMass Amherst has held accountable at least one of the people who stole copies of The Minuteman out of the hands of a student while a campus police officer watched and did nothing.

Several video recordings of the newspaper theft at UMass show UMass police officer Lisa Kidwell idly standing by as hundreds of copies of The Minuteman are stolen out of the hands of a student intending to distribute the paper. We also have a copy of the police report, which includes blatant errors of both fact (contradicting both the video and a personal account) and law (on this, see my forthcoming post on UMass).

One of the individuals who stole the papers, shown in a photograph as standing on a stack of papers and on video as grabbing them out of the other student’s hands, has been identified to FIRE as student Vanessa Snow. Snow is the leader of UMass’ Student Bridges, a campus organization supported by the UMass Amherst Student Government Association (SGA). Snow was ridiculed by name in that issue of The Minuteman. She reportedly was reprimanded for the theft.

As if the theft was not enough, The Minuteman‘s mockery of Snow also resulted in official censorship when the SGA passed a resolution demanding that The Silent Majority, the student organization that publishes The Minuteman, publicly apologize to Snow for its constitutionally protected mockery of her or face loss of recognition, which would shut down both the organization and the paper. At the request of The Silent Majority, FIRE wrote to UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert C. Holub urging that the coerced speech and threat of punishment be rescinded immediately.

While FIRE awaited an answer from the administration, one student senator, Derek Khanna, tried to restore the First Amendment to campus by placing a resolution on the SGA agenda that would have rescinded the censorship resolution without the administration’s help. SGA Senate Speaker Shaun Robinson not only refused to hear Khanna’s resolution but reportedly threw it on the floor, even calling the police to eject Khanna from the SGA meeting after Khanna insisted that he be heard.

Of course, Khanna was eventually proved absolutely right when the UMass administration finally invoked its veto power and rejected the resolution. “As the enactment does not reflect an appreciation of the Silent Majority’s constitutional right to the exercise of free speech,” Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Esther Terry wrote, “I reject it altogether and recommend that it be rescinded in its entirety.”

UMass Amherst has been plagued with free speech problems since February, when a large group of students invited people to protest at a speech by columnist Don Feder that was to be hosted by the Republican Club. In response, the UMass Police Department pressured the Republican Club into paying an additional $444.52 for extra security at the event due to the threatened protest. The club agreed to pay the money, but the organized hecklers nevertheless disrupted Feder’s speech. (Video of the disrupted event is available online.) Under pressure from FIRE, including an op-ed in The Boston Globe, UMass publicly relented in a letter to the Globe. The letter announced that UMass would return the excess fee, but it deceptively claimed that UMass had only charged more money because of greater anticipated attendance at Feder’s lecture.

Protesters also disrupted a speech by Mike S. Adams at UMass Amherst in 2006. We’ll see if UMass has learned anything about free speech on April 30, when Mike S. Adams returns to campus.

Schools: Boston College University of Massachusetts – Amherst