What’s ‘Out of Proportion’ About Defending the First Amendment?

By October 15, 2012

As we publicized last week, Ohio University (OU) found itself in a constitutional pickle after it censored a political flyer that student Jillyann Burns had put on her dorm room door. Fortunately, OU corrected its error quickly, and FIRE commended the university for doing so. 

Unfortunately, despite its quick action, OU is also apparently claiming that the whole matter wasn’t that big a deal. OU campus publication The New Political quotes Vice President for Student Affairs Ryan Lombardi as saying that the matter has been "completely blown out of proportion" by the publicity FIRE has brought to the case. 

Lombardi goes on: 

"As soon as we were made aware of this we said, ‘oh my gosh, what happened?’ and we corrected that with the staff member," said Lombardi. 

[...] 

"Somehow this has turned into us trying to censor political activism, from which is the furthest thing we try to do at this campus," said Lombardi. "I understand where they are coming from and why they would try to claim that victory to get some attention."

OU deserves credit for quickly correcting its course when FIRE pointed out the legal and moral implications of its censorship. But it’s disappointing to see OU write this off as a ploy by FIRE to "get some attention" in order to minimize the error in the first place. It is most certainly a big deal when employees of the state tell students to remove their political flyers. It is further a serious problem when you have a climate at your university in which employees think that censoring political flyers is the right and necessary thing to do. 

The reason that FIRE publicizes cases like this one is that they are widespread. In fact, administrative misunderstandings of student free speech rights and misapplications of speech policies by those empowered to enforce them are so common that FIRE wrote a guidebook specifically for university administrators to help combat the problem. In election years, improper restrictions on political speech and activity are common enough that FIRE has written a policy statement devoted to the subject. (I note also The New Political‘s choice of headline, "OU Disproves Free Speech Infringement Claims," as if to suggest FIRE somehow made this whole thing up, rather than thoroughly document it as we do all our cases.) 

OU may think this issue is barely worth notice, but if I were a college student and I posted a political flyer on my door and was told to take it down, with the possibility of disciplinary action if I didn’t, I wouldn’t think of it as "no big deal," nor would I find fighting back to be "out of proportion." Jillyann Burns, having been there, sets the OU administration straight and puts the case in proper perspective:

"I think the purpose of [FIRE's press release], in my opinion, was just to get some attention toward public universities and their infringement on individual rights," said Burns. The article, she said, was meant to "let there be some type of confidence in other students’ minds, and at other universities that have stricter speech policies than OU, that they can have backup like FIRE."

Again, we emphasize that Ohio University administrators deserve credit for promptly rectifying the situation. If OU wants these kind of mistakes to not to be "blown out of proportion," however, there’s a simple way to ensure that: It should understand and respect the First Amendment rights of its students from this point forward. As always, FIRE is eager to help Ohio University take a hard look at the policies that have earned it a "red light" rating on Spotlight, our system for rating whether university policies infringe on protected speech. Nothing would please us more than working in partnership with Ohio University students, faculty, and administrators to comprehensively reform its speech codes and transform the campus into a national model for free speech. Wouldn’t that be a happy ending to this story?

Schools: Ohio University Cases: Ohio University: Political Flyers Censored in Dorms