FIRE Places Billboard Criticizing Bucknell University’s Free Speech Record

September 20, 2010

As today’s press release notes, FIRE has purchased a billboard advertisement to publicize Bucknell University’s poor record on free speech.

Bucknell, which used two policies to shut down the expression of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) on three separate occasions, is on FIRE’s Red Alert list as one of the worst violators of free speech on campus. Two Bucknell presidents, including new president John C. Bravman, have so far refused to renounce Bucknell’s censorship or revise the policies. Therefore, as of today, trustees, alumni, and others traveling northbound on Route 15 will see the electronic billboard near Bucknell’s campus.

Torch readers know the story. In March 2009, a Bucknell administrator stopped BUCC from distributing “Obama stimulus dollars” expressing opposition to President Barack Obama’s economic policies. The administrator also claimed that students need prior permission to distribute “anything from Bibles to other matter” on campuscompletely contradicting Bucknell’s public promises of free speech on campus.

Then, in April 2009, Bucknell administrators shut down BUCC’s “affirmative action bake sale” due to an alleged paperwork error. A video recording shows Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford (now retired) informing BUCC that the supposed error gave him the “opportunity” to shut down the sale. Bucknell later banned all such “bake sales,” even with satirical, optional pricing, and claimed the authority to determine in its own discretion which “forum” would be appropriate for discussing such controversial issues. This Bucknell policy would violate the First Amendment on any public campus.

“Affirmative action bake sales” and “gender wage gap bake sales” are commonly used on college campuses as political theater. Such events are creative and expressive protests, not fundraisers, and do not constitute illegal discrimination. However, Commerford informed BUCC in a recorded conversation that, even when the prices are clearly optional and serve only to highlight what the students perceive as inequities, such events would never be acceptable at Bucknell. Commerford said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, because it’s a discriminatory [pricing] policy.” He added, “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.”

President Bravman has promised FIRE that he is examining this issue, but he has not responded to FIRE’s September 1, 2010, letter.

Bucknell has much to answer for. For one, it revised its former “Sales and Solicitations” policynow “Sales and Promotions”to include “promotions … or causes,” injecting into its policy an ambiguity as to the freedom of groups like BUCC to distribute protest literature on campus. It has also stubbornly maintained its unwritten policy banning affirmative action bake sales and, if the unwritten law is followed to the letter, wage gap bake sales.

Solving all this, however, is simple. If Bucknell merely revises these two policies, opening the marketplace of ideas once again to all students and groups at Bucknell, FIRE will happily remove Bucknell from our Red Alert list and praise President Bravman’s decisive leadership. We will also change the message on our billboard to reflect this welcome change.

It’s not too much to ask. As Robert states in today’s press release: “For $40,594 a year in tuition, the very least Bucknell students should be able to ask is that the university live up to its promises of free speech and not selectively censor opinions the administration dislikes.”

Until that day comes, anyone traveling to Bucknell on Route 15be it for Family Weekend at the beginning of October or Homecoming Weekend at the end of Octoberwill see the truth about Bucknell’s record on free speech on FIRE’s 10’6″ x 22’9″ billboard.

Torch readers, meanwhile, can tell Bucknell University that it’s time to respect student free speech by sending a letter to President Bravman today.