NEW YORK, October 5, 2006—After a week of intense public criticism, Columbia University has revoked its semester-long suspension of the Men’s Ice Hockey Club. Late last month, Columbia suspended the club for the semester—effectively canceling the club’s entire season—for posting recruiting flyers containing language that some found offensive. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), along with other groups and individuals both within and outside the university, vociferously opposed Columbia’s attack on free expression.
The controversy began when the hockey club posted recruitment flyers around campus that contained the phrase “Stop being a pussy,” in a play on the name of Columbia’s athletic team name, the Lions. A similar play on words appeared on a 2004 T-shirt distributed by Columbia’s student government. Yet this time, in reaction to the flyers, Columbia’s four undergraduate student councils issued a joint letter of protest to university administrators and began work on a “Community Principles document” to promote “civility” on campus.
“Not only was Columbia’s decision to suspend the club for posting an ‘offensive’ flyer an absurd overreaction, it showed a stunning lack of respect for freedom of speech,” FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said. “If Columbia was willing to take such severe action against students for using a ‘bad’ word, imagine what might happen to students who communicated religious or political views that others found ‘offensive.’”
Columbia’s administration reacted to the controversy by suspending the hockey club for the first semester of the 2006-7 academic year, placing the club on probation until 2008, and demanding that the club deliver a formal apology to the Columbia community for “the offensive nature” of the flyer. Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education M. Dianne Murphy insisted that “the disciplinary action is not related to free speech,” instead citing the club’s failure to get the flyers approved and past infractions dating as far back as 2002—before some members of the club were even in college.
On September 27, FIRE wrote to Columbia President Lee Bollinger insisting that such excuses “are being used as pretense to punish students for their ‘offensive’ speech.” FIRE also cited the inconsistency between this punishment and Bollinger’s public statements defending students’ freedom of expression. For example, in 2004, Bollinger sent a letter to Columbia student leaders that said, “in order to maintain an atmosphere of free and spirited inquiry and discussion, we must choose to forego our natural instinct to punish those who are intemperate and even offensive.”
The New York Civil Rights Coalition (NYCRC) also wrote to Bollinger on October 1, urging him to reverse the punishment and calling Columbia’s policy requiring prior approval for free speech “absurd.”
Yesterday, Columbia’s Office of Athletics Communications issued a statement announcing a reduction in the club’s punishment. The club will now be allowed to engage in league play this fall, but it is still suspended from its preseason and nonleague games. The club will also remain on probation for one year, must formally apologize for the flyers, and must attend “leadership training session[s].”
Columbia’s treatment of this issue is symptomatic of the university’s longstanding disregard for the basic freedoms of its community members. “Unfortunately, Columbia continues to avoid addressing the underlying free speech concerns about its action,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. “Columbia’s president strongly endorses freedom of speech, but the university’s actions, here and elsewhere, simply do not match that rhetoric. As the year progresses, FIRE will continue to pressure Columbia to ensure that students’ liberty is protected.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Columbia can be viewed at www.thefire.org/columbia.
Robert Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Samantha Harris, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Lee Bollinger, President, Columbia University: 212-854-9970; firstname.lastname@example.org
M. Dianne Murphy, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education, Columbia University: 212-854-2537; email@example.com