Jan Niklas Wolfe, a researcher and paralegal for Harvey Silverglate, FIRE co-founder and chairman of the board of trustees, reports on a shocking instance of censorship at Boston College. Wolfe is a 2006 graduate of Boston College and a former Heights associate news editor.
As reported here, summer employees at Boston College (BC) threw away thousands of copies of The Heights, the university’s independent student newspaper. What brought about this blatant act of censorship at a school whose student handbook labels such actions “vandalism” and therefore punishable? The answer is one of the more common explanations for censorship in higher education: A mid-level university official’s taking offense at an innocuous column.
Editor-in-chief Tom Wiedeman wrote a column for the summer issue of The Heights (titled “The Guide”), which serves as a resource booklet for freshman on student life at BC. In keeping with the mission of “The Guide,” Wiedeman’s column offered honest, helpful advice. Yet Fr. Joe Marchese, who runs BC’s orientation programs during the summer months, found the following section of the column offensive—and therefore OK to discard:
“Call me a pessimist, but orientation is pretty miserable for most people—or at least it was for me. Long speeches, small group chats, and weird, random roommates all distract you from the summer of fun you were having back home. But don’t fret if your [orientation leader] is a bit overbearing and you’re wondering what the hell you’re doing up here in Boston; I promise life at Boston College gets much, much better.”
In the Sept. 7 issue of The Heights, Wiedeman calmly pointed out that Marchese’s actions “set a dangerous precedent” of condoning the stifling of free expression on campus. He went on to describe how repeated efforts to discuss the situation with Marchese went unanswered.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time BC’s leaders have tried to censor their students. In 2003, when I was a Heights staff member, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. sought to impose new advertising and editorial restrictions on the newspaper’s editorial board and asked them to establish an “active advisory board” made up of faculty and administrators. When The Heights’ editors refused, arguing that the new restrictions limited their independence, the president’s office tried to use the newspaper’s office space, which it leases from the University, as negotiating leverage. After a media firestorm ensued, Leahy’s office eventually dropped almost all of its demands and allowed The Heights to renew its office lease.
It remains to be seen what steps, if any, Leahy will take to enforce BC’s regulations against vandalism, which Marchese so unabashedly disregarded. But if Leahy, who orates frequently on his ambitions for turning BC into a world-class university, is serious about offering students the best education possible, he should not tolerate behavior like Marchese’s that prioritizes marketing the university to anxious students and parents above students’ free-speech rights. Besides, one would hope that part of marketing a world-class university is demonstrating that it takes academic freedom seriously.