When students make controversial statements, it’s all too common for college administrators to react with a promise to crack down on speech as a way to appease offended members of the campus community. This summer, Texas Christian University suspended a student after his tweets about ISIS and protests in Baltimore offended non-students on Tumblr. Soon after that, Sam Houston State University threatened to investigate a student for a tweet about a police officer’s death after it received significant criticism on social media. In August, a spokesperson from The Ohio State University implied that students who hung a raunchy banner from their off-campus apartment could face punishment, despite the fact that it was protected speech.
These universities, now joined by Hiram College, a private college in Ohio, are just a few of many institutions that in the past year alone have threatened to censor expression the moment it elicits discomfort on or off campus.
On Sunday, anti-police messages like “no good cops” and “cops kill kids” were discovered on a chalkboard in Hiram’s student center, which had been reserved by the Social Justice Warriors student group to celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement. The group’s message on the board had been erased and replaced with anti-police messages by non-group members, according to reports.
Students quickly took to social media to share their complaints about the messages. The Social Justice Warriors Club formed a protest to respond to the outcry, which was temporarily shut down by administrators who told the group they could not protest without first registering with the college.
The protest was eventually permitted, but that doesn’t mean Hiram is a staunch defender of free expression. In fact, Dee West, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Diversity and Inclusion, suggested just the opposite:
West told newsnet5.com the writing was considered “offensive” and would have been censored. West said it was erased before the administration had time to address it.
“There’s a difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe,” she said. “If there’s something that creates a hostile climate and they’re unsafe then we will take responsibility of removing it.”
West’s comments do not bode well for students whose viewpoints may offend other members of the campus community and provoke a backlash. Should students who support unpopular political positions expect to be censored in some way simply because their listeners may dislike the message? What other “offensive” content could be censored at Hiram?
These are questions that a college claiming, as Hiram does, to “celebrate freedom of thought and freedom of choice” and to create a “supportive environment in which community members will be challenged to explore knowledge, values, and ethics from varied perspectives” should answer. Otherwise, West’s statements could very well chill speech on the part of students who fear the consequences of offending their peers.