Bucknell University Slams Door on Bibles, Student Satires of Obama Stimulus Plan, Affirmative Action

June 11, 2009

It still amazes me that university administrators come up with such flimsy excusessometimes even making up rules out of nowhere, on the spotfor interfering with students’ freedom of speech on campus. I reported in April that Bucknell University had shut down a satirical "affirmative action bake sale" on a pretext. On further investigation, FIRE found a pattern of violations of the speech rights that Bucknell’s own policy promises to students. Indeed, as today’s press release details, student rights are under serious assault at Bucknell, where not only the bake sale but also criticism of President Obama’s stimulus plan have repeatedly been shut down or forbidden by administrators on creative or even false pretexts.

Take ActionBucknell’s recent forays into censorship began on March 17, 2009, when members of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) stood at Bucknell’s student center and passed out fake dollar bills with President Obama’s face on the front and the sentence "Obama’s stimulus plan makes your money as worthless as monopoly money" on the back. One hour into this symbolic protest, Bucknell administrator Judith L. Mickanis approached the students and told them that they were "busted," that they were "soliciting" without prior approval, and that their activity was equivalent to handing out Bibles.

The students protested, but despite the fact that Bucknell’s solicitation policy explicitly covers only sales and fundraising materials, Mickanis insisted via e-mail that prior permission was needed to pass out any materials"anything from Bibles to other matter." Actually, Mickanis should have invoked a different Bucknell policythe one stating that Bucknell is an academic community committed to "the free and open exchange of ideas."

Distributing protest literature is an American free-speech tradition that dates to before the founding of the United States, but I suppose Bucknell is afraid of students handing out things like Bibles or "other matter" without Bucknell administrators’ knowledge and prior permission. Maybe Bucknell does not actually want to be a "marketplace of ideas" after all.

Bucknell’s misguided crusade against free expression continued on April 7, when administrators shut down BUCC’s "affirmative action bake sale" protest. Affirmative action bake sales are a widely used form of satirical protest against affirmative action policies that treat people of different races differently. Organizers typically display suggested pricing in which African-American and Hispanic students are asked to pay lower prices than Asian and white students for the same items. The protests are thus intended to satirize and spark debate about affirmative action policies, not to raise revenue.

A video recording shows that an hour into BUCC’s protest, Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford arrived and informed the students that he had the "opportunity" to shut down the sale because the prices they were charging were different (lower) than what they had listed on their event application. The students offered to change the prices on the spot, but Commerford refused and insisted that they close the event immediately and file another application for a later date.

Accordingly, BUCC members filed an application to hold the same event two weeks later, but were then told that they would have to obtain the permission of the Dean of Students to hold a "controversial" event. No such permission is required by Bucknell policy. When the students nevertheless attempted to get this special permission, Commerford rejected the request. In a recorded conversation, Commerford said that such a bake sale would violate Bucknell’s nondiscrimination policy, even with satirical recommended (not actual) pricing, and that the only event he would approve on the topic would be a debate in a different forum altogether.

As one BUCC student tries to reason with Commerford, it is clear that he has no interest at all in supporting the rights of the BUCC students. Instead he asserts Bucknell’s total control over the time, place, and manner in which BUCC might be allowed to express its affirmative action message. He says: "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, [yes, eight times, as the student is talking] because it’s a discriminatory [pricing] policy." He then adds, "It’s a political issue, ok; it needs to be debated in its proper forum, ok, and not on the public property on the campus." When a BUCC member then asks, "There is no way we can have an event like this?" Commerford replies, "No."

This novel restriction also does not exist among Bucknell’s official policies. It would never come within a million miles of passing constitutional muster at any public college or community college in the United States. Using this absurd logic, Bucknell would have to require its College Democrats to say nothing political on campus unless they give equal time to Republican candidates at their events, or its Catholic Campus Ministry to remain silent about abortion unless it holds a debate and invites pro-choice activists to speak at its events. While students are and should be free to host debates, they must not be required to provide a platform for their ideological opponents. Rather, those opponents must be free to spread their own messages and host their own events in their own ways.

After these three instances of censorship in two months, BUCC President Travis Eaione turned to FIRE, and we wrote Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell on May 21, informing him of these incidents and reminding him that the university’s handbook "instructs students not only that they have freedom of speech but that ‘deliberate interference’ with this freedom is prohibited … By shutting down BUCC events, Bucknell sends the message to its students that speech is to be feared, monitored, and ultimately restrained if it is deemed sufficiently controversial." Bucknell has yet to respond.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Bucknell to stop inventing excuses and to allow its students to enjoy the free speech rights that Bucknell has promised.

You can contact Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell at 570-577-1515 or brian.mitchell@bucknell.edu, or you can reach Gerald W. Commerford, Associate Dean of Students, directly at 570-577-1634 or gerald.commerford@bucknell.edu.

Schools:  Bucknell University

Cases:  Bucknell University: University Slams Door on Student Satires of Obama Stimulus Plan and Affirmative Action