Discrimination. Censorship. Elizabethtown College is quickly gaining a reputation for disregarding student rights. FIRE recently covered the college’s hosting of a racially segregated event. Now add to the college’s missteps its refusal to approve a student group’s guest speaker because of the speaker’s political views.
On Oct. 5, FIRE wrote privately to Etown, calling on the college to recommit to its strong promises of free expression after it notified the campus chapter of a student organization, Turning Point USA, that it could not host conservative political commentator Joe Basrawi.
The college ignored our letter, just as it remained silent when we called out its decision to endorse racial segregation. If Etown won’t defend its actions to FIRE, the college at least owes its student body and the public an explanation for why it continues to trample on the rights it promises — or that it is required by federal law to respect, as in the case of nondiscrimination on the basis of race — to its students.
How Etown censors students: Gradually, then suddenly
In August, the TPUSA chapter president, Alex Russo, invited Basrawi to campus to speak at one of the group’s events. Basrawi chose critical race theory as the topic of his planned talk. Russo reserved a lecture room for the event. Before obtaining separate approval for the speaker, the TPUSA chapter advertised the event on its Instagram page, posting a flyer titled “Critical Hate Theory.”
On Sept. 20, Carina Carpenter, the Assistant Director of Community Living and Student Activities, called Russo to tell him the event could not proceed with the word “hate” in the title and that guest speakers needed to be approved by the college. After the phone call, Carpenter emailed Russo to tell him what the college needed to approve Basrawi’s speaking appearance. Russo immediately replied with the requested information. TPUSA also changed the advertisement to say “Critical Race Theory” instead of “Critical Hate Theory.”
The event appeared to be on track for approval.
Then, on Sept. 23, four days before the event was scheduled to take place, Dean of Students Nichole Gonzalez asked Russo to meet with her and Associate Dean of Students Jenn Crowder to “discuss concerns with your proposed speaker.” At that meeting, Gonzalez told Russo and TPUSA officer Gavin Phillips that the Basrawi event would not be approved.
Crowder confirmed that decision in an email, which also noted that she had directed Russo “to the Club and Org handbook so they were aware of the approval process to avoid publicizing events prior to approval, etc. which was an issue with this event.”
Russo replied to that email to memorialize what was discussed at the meeting. Russo’s email reveals that the denial of the speaker request was premised on objections to Basrawi’s views. Despite Russo asking Crowder and Gonzalez to let him know if his email left anything out, neither administrator disputed the account in Russo’s email. Nor has Etown’s president or any other administrator disputed that account in response to FIRE’s letter.
FIRE again calls on Etown to right the ship and show that its commitments to free expression — and nondiscrimination — are more than just lip service.
According to Russo, Gonzalez told him and Phillips that she and Etown’s administration feel “TPUSA is an organization, and Joe Basrawi is an individual, that seeks to cause division and disorder on campuses,” and that Basrawi would do exactly that by speaking about critical race theory. The administrators raised concerns that Basrawi “was not a Critical Race Theorist.” They said they “were strongly opposed to the speaker,” claiming he is “intentionally disruptive,” and Gonzalez “expressed concern that the college cannot sanction an event allowing or promoting an alternative or negative view of CRT.” The administrators also said TPUSA “needed to follow proper Club and Organization Handbooks in order to approve future events properly.”
TPUSA ultimately held the event off campus, apparently without incident. But no student organization should be denied the use or benefits of tuition-supported campus resources merely because administrators disagree with the group’s beliefs or those of the speakers it wishes to hear. This sends a terrible message to students: express or associate with only views that meet our approval, or leave campus.
Etown neglects its own free speech promises
Etown’s refusal to allow TPUSA to host Basrawi due to his views on critical race theory and the anticipated reaction to his speech flies in the face of the college’s firm commitments to free expression. The student handbook, for instance, guarantees students the “right” to “express diverse opinions.” Students are “encouraged to develop and challenge their own values, while seeking to understand and appreciate alternative perspectives.” The college even has a “Blue Jay Pledge of Integrity,” in which students and faculty “pledge to respect the free exchange of ideas both inside and outside the classroom.”
These free speech protections mean Etown can place only reasonable, viewpoint-neutral restrictions on student groups’ ability to host guest speakers. The college cannot veto a student group’s speaker invitation simply because the speaker may express views that some students find offensive or divisive. As we stated in our letter, “In matters of politics and social relations, there is scarcely an opinion or position that is not offensive to someone.”
If offensiveness or listener reactions were consistently used as the standard for what speech is acceptable, student groups of all political stripes would struggle to obtain approval for speakers on any contentious political issue, foreclosing the “free exchange of ideas both inside and outside the classroom” endorsed by the college.
To the extent that Etown barred Basrawi from speaking out of fear that members of the college community would become disruptive, the college ratified a heckler’s veto — an inimical form of censorship long rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that authorities continue to use to suppress or punish unpopular speech. “When authorities capitulate to the heckler’s veto,” we explained to Etown, “they incentivize future disruptive conduct, and viewpoints across the political spectrum become vulnerable to censorship. Etown may punish those who react to speech with violence or misconduct, but it may not silence the speaker.” Colleges have a responsibility to ensure the safety of expressive events — anticipated disruption cannot excuse censorship.
While Crowder also mentioned that TPUSA’s publicizing of the event before it was approved was an “issue,” nothing in the Student Club and Organization Handbook prohibits student groups from advertising an event online prior to official approval. This minor issue did not appear to be the reason for the denial, in any event, as the college solicited information from Russo about the speaker to review the request after it was made aware of the publicity. The administrators’ full explanation of their denial of TPUSA’s speaker request makes clear that their actions were motivated by objections to Basrawi’s views. And Etown’s censorship of the language in TPUSA’s advertisements for the event compounded the violation of the group’s expressive rights.
Colleges have a responsibility to ensure the safety of expressive events — anticipated disruption cannot excuse censorship.
Private colleges like Etown are not bound by the First Amendment and have no obligation to promise their students the right to free expression. But many colleges, including Etown, enshrine this principle in their policies because they wish to establish themselves as strongholds of free thought and unfettered inquiry. They recognize that these values are important and cherished by students, faculty, and the general public.
Etown is faltering on its obligations to protect student rights. FIRE again calls on Etown to right the ship and show that its commitments to free expression — and nondiscrimination — are more than just lip service.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If your rights are in jeopardy, get in touch with us: thefire.org/alarm.