Glenn Reynolds in ‘USA Today’ on Heavy-Handed Admins Suppressing Speech on Campus

April 23, 2014

Those new to The Torch or to FIRE’s work might be shocked to see that some colleges and universities punish even crystal-clear instances of protected expression. Take, for example, the Game of Thrones T-shirt worn by Bergen Community College (BCC) Professor Francis Schmidt’s daughter, which BCC claimed was a “threat” that warranted punishment. But as ridiculous as cases like this seem, it is critically important to remember that they are not outliers—similarly egregious First Amendment violations happen at campuses across the country. University of Tennessee law professor and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds argues in a column for USA Today published yesterday that Schmidt’s case and similar incidents are a symptom of college administrators growing in number and in power.

As institutions hire more administrators, Reynolds writes, they are often forced to hire fewer or less experienced professors, often to the detriment of students’ quality of education. But this shift has yet worse ramifications for higher education: “[A]dministrators’ obsession with—and all too often, abuse of—security” has created a “growing tendency of administrators to stifle critics by shamelessly interpreting even obviously harmless statements as ‘threats.’”

Contemplating the BCC case, Reynolds asks:

What kind of person claims that a picture of a 9-year-old girl wearing an HBO T-shirt is a threat? The kind of person who runs America’s colleges, apparently. And [BCC administrator Jim] Miller, alas, is not alone in his cluelessness and, apparently, paranoia.

Reynolds cites several examples to illustrate his point, including FIRE’s case at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where a professor was punished for a poster outside his office that quoted the television space-Western series Firefly. (FIRE has a video on the case featuring legendary science fiction author Neil Gaiman, which has been viewed more than 110,000 times—check it out on our YouTube page.)

As Reynolds points out, administrators are increasingly trying to exercise authority over matters that normally are dealt with by law enforcement, but without the training or even common sense that law enforcement (at least in theory) has:

Events like these call into question both the judgment of academic administrators and the existence of campus police forces as a separate institution. In his book, The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins Professor Benjamin Ginsberg talks about the profusion of “deanlets” that has overtaken higher education. But it’s even worse when those deanlets not only eat up the substance of institutions, but also command armed force. It’s extremely doubtful that any outside law enforcement agency would have responded to any of the “threats” listed above, but campus police, called in by insecure deanlets, have little choice.

Check out the rest of Reynolds’ column in USA Today.

Schools:  Bergen Community College