On January 18, 2010, I received a letter from Bucknell University General Counsel Wayne Bromfield that is undoubtedly the most personally insulting letter I have ever received in my time here at FIRE. We actually didn’t respond at the time because when someone sends you a letter like this, you can be sure that he or she is no longer acting in good faith.
But as we get closer to the time when we will highlight Bucknell as a Red Alert school in our annual full-page advertisement in U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings issue—Red Alert schools are the “worst of the worst” when it comes to protecting liberty on campus—I decided that despite my misgivings about engaging an apparently enraged Wayne Bromfield, Esq., it’s time to give Bucknell one final chance to avoid further national embarrassment.
On January 7, I wrote a letter to Bucknell informing the university that it would be featured in FIRE’s upcoming U.S. News advertisement unless it took steps to rectify its policies and practices regarding free speech, particularly with regard to the Bucknell University Conservatives Club. It was a short letter, and here’s all we asked Bucknell to do:
All that Bucknell needs to do to ensure its removal from FIRE’s Red Alert list is to live up to its promises of free speech and demonstrate its willingness to allow the unfettered debate of controversial issues—such as affirmative action—on the public areas of its campus without need for prior administrative approval. In doing so, Bucknell must also clarify that its recently enacted “Sales and Promotions” policy will not require prior approval for activities (such as the distribution of “Obama stimulus dollars”) that would constitute protected expression on a public campus. Bucknell must also reverse its decision barring controversial political speech—including the Bucknell University Conservatives Club’s “affirmative action bake sale”—from the public areas of campus. Bucknell’s degradations of free expression cannot be allowed to stand, and FIRE will continue to publicly call on Bucknell to remedy its wrongs until it does so.
This is not exactly the purplest of prose, as you might have observed, but you wouldn’t know that from the response I got from Wayne Bromfield, which started this way:
I write on behalf of President Mitchell in response to your January 7, 2010 letter. The letter, as you well know, grossly misrepresents the facts. Despite your self-described role in defining the “moral and legal obligations” of others, you have abused the truth in this letter to an exceptional degree even for you.
“Even for me”? Yikes! What did I do? In the next paragraph, Bromfield tells me:
First, Bucknell has never prohibited, in your words, “unfettered debate of controversial issues—such as affirmative action—on public areas of its campus.” As you are well aware, having chosen to opine effusively on this matter, the event you are referencing occurred on the University’s private property.
This passage sets the tone for the whole letter, in that Bromfield’s main argument is that Bucknell is private, not public, and that it can therefore do whatever it wants. He keeps coming back to that argument again and again. For instance, with regard to Bucknell’s telling the Bucknell University Conservatives Club that it could not pass out “Obama stimulus dollars” to protest the 2009 stimulus bill, he says, “Bucknell halted the spring 2009 event that included protest dollars because it was (a) occurring on the University’s private property, and (b) was interfering with the safe flow of students through the student center.” (We’ll come back to accusation (b) later.) And in his argument in support of Bucknell’s newly revised “Sales and Promotions Policy,” Bromfield concludes, “You also know as well as we do that Bucknell is a private institution and not a public campus.” The last paragraph states, “If you would like to have a serious and honest discussion about freedom of speech and Constitutional Rights, notably as they pertain to private colleges and universities, it would be worth having the meeting you discuss.”
We get it! Bucknell is private! Believe it or not, this did not escape our notice. And Bromfield is right that because the Constitution and Bill of Rights do not apply to a private university the way they do to a public university, Bucknell can basically do whatever it wants to its students on its campus (within certain legal limits; for instance, Bucknell cannot set up segregated cafeterias for black and white students). Since nobody is forced to go to Bucknell, if Bucknell wants to require all of its students to shave their heads, it can do so. If it wants all men to wear facial hair, it can do that, too. If it wants to require that all of its students sign a statement saying they find Wayne Bromfield to be one heck of a handsome man, Bucknell can even do that.
But Bucknell doesn’t want to do any of that (I hope). Instead, Bucknell repeatedly promises its students and faculty members free speech, free thought, and academic freedom—promises that it is both legally and morally obligated to uphold.
For instance, in its sexual harassment policy [PDF link], Bucknell states:
Because Bucknell as an academic community committed to both the elimination of sexual harassment and the free and open exchange of ideas, this policy is intended to foster an environment permitting full participation by all of its members, while not inhibiting the robust and wide-open pursuit of ideas and freedom of speech.
Sounds pretty unequivocally in support of free speech, no? And in its “Free Speech Issues” web page describing The Bucknellian newspaper, Bucknell begins by saying “Bucknell University values free speech and academic freedom.” And don’t miss this section about “Strengthening the Academic Core” in “The Plan for Bucknell,” containing this inspiring paean to the life of the mind and academic freedom:
Part of the distinctiveness of the Bucknell learning experience is the opportunity for students to interact daily with faculty and staff who exemplify a passion for learning and a dedication to the life of the mind—a life of intellectual exploration, creativity, and imagination. In affirming the centrality of the academic core, Bucknell also rededicates itself to an environment that nurtures, protects, and celebrates these values, all within the context of an unwavering commitment to academic freedom.
Just as nobody is forced to go to Bucknell, nobody is forcing Bucknell to guarantee freedom of speech or academic freedom to its students and faculty members. Bucknell decided all on its own to promise to uphold those values. So to the extent that Bromfield’s argument is that Bucknell didn’t violate the Constitution by taking these actions, I totally agree with him.
The problem is that Bromfield’s “we’re private and we can do whatever we want” argument means that he officially doesn’t care that Bucknell is unashamedly and unrepentantly lying about its own voluntary commitment to free speech. It is that underlying will to deceive on the part of Bucknell administrators that makes Bucknell one of the worst campuses in the nation when it comes to protecting free speech on campus. And Bucknell is not just lying about its commitment to free speech—it is piling on deception after deception about the circumstances in which it is censoring expression. Adam penned a hugely thorough analysis of Bucknell’s offenses against the truth on this blog nearly a year ago, complete with links to all the evidence you need to make up your own mind (including about the accusation (b) I mentioned above). Want video? We have that. Want audio? We have that. How about e-mails and documents? You got it. They’re all linked in Adam’s blog entry.
Wayne Bromfield says that FIRE and I are liars. Does he present any evidence? No. I suppose he wants you to take his word for it. FIRE and I, however, do not, and you can see all the evidence on Adam’s blog entry above or on the case page here. This isn’t a “he said/he said” situation. As is always true with FIRE, we give you all the evidence so you can make up your own mind. If only Bucknell would extend the same courtesy to its own students.