Jon Rice is a recent graduate of Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Consortium in California, where he earned a degree in political studies with an emphasis in global politics.
During his time at Pitzer, Jon held leadership positions in several student groups, including President of Pitzer’s Student Senate, the International Managing Editor for the Claremont Port Side newsmagazine, Admission Fellow, and Communications Director for the ACLU of the Claremont Colleges. Since attending FIRE’s CFN Conference in 2010, he has used his connections and leadership to encourage reform for campus speech codes, including a system-wide bias incident policy that was named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for April 2010.
FIRE asked Jon to talk about his speech code reform efforts over the past three years:
FIRE: What got you started promoting free speech on your campus?
Jon: I started promoting free speech on Pitzer’s campus and across the Claremont Colleges because almost the perfect circumstances occurred. During my freshman year, I vividly remember getting numerous (and absurd) bias-related incident emails, mostly from then-Scripps College Dean of Students Deb Woods. While I got frustrated with these emails, a student from Claremont McKenna College, Miles Lifson, was working to found a chapter of the ACLU in Claremont. We met, our values and goals clicked, and it kind of moved on from there. Beyond that, I also felt that as I started my college classes, I wanted students to vigorously express their views both in and out of the classroom—administrators shouldn’t stifle speech.
FIRE: Can you describe the policies you are trying to change at the Claremont Colleges and why you think they are problematic?
Jon: Right now, there are a few policies we are trying to change at Pitzer specifically. Pitzer has a posting policy that gives the Office of Students Affairs the right to not approve any “offensive” flyers for posting. However, the handbook never explains what “offensive” means, nor what criteria they will judge it by. Students should be free to post anything they choose. Moreover, the way the policy is written now means that one administrator has to make a judgement call—a moral judgement call, no less—of student speech. There’s a big chance that speech that the administrator finds offensive could be censored, even if it is protected under the First Amendment. Our administrators claim that this won’t happen, but that isn’t enough. I’m worried what happens when an administrator 10 or 20 years down the line sees the policy and uses it to censor.
We are also working on reforming some of the internet policies, which state that one cannot use computers to send obscene messages. Instead, we want to clarify to make this language specifically refer to illegal acts.
Finally, we are working to reform the Claremont Colleges bias-related incident policy which, as currently written, gives the power to those most easily offended to hold the entire campus hostage to their viewpoint. Reading the policy now, it’s very unclear what a bias-related incident actually is. A member of the college community should be able to read the policy and understand exactly what it does. It also could be (and has been) used to chill speech that is protected.
FIRE: What have you been doing on campus to challenge these policies?
Jon: Since attending the FIRE conference in 2010, I’ve been working diligently to make free speech a major issue on campus. One problem for those of us who want to protect free speech on campus is that it is often the LAST issue that students worry about, even if it has the potential to affect everyone. As a part of the ACLU, we held multiple events on free speech, including bringing FIRE President Greg Lukianoff to Claremont McKenna, hosting documentary screenings of the excellent “Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech” and lobbying student publications to highlight the issue. This year, I was elected Student Senate Chair at Pitzer, where I helped to introduce proposals to reform Pitzer’s policies. While the Student Senate quickly passed the measures, the faculty and administration had some concerns, which has significantly slowed down the process. Nevertheless, I’m confident that change will come to Pitzer and Claremont.
FIRE: What has been the most difficult part of challenging your school’s policies? The most exciting?
Jon: I think the most difficult part about changing school policies is getting people interested. Of all the things to deal with—academic credit policies, housing rules and regulations, curriculum planning—free speech seems less interesting to many. So getting people to realize that even if many of their rights aren’t being violated right now, that the potential is there through the policies, is difficult. I think it’s also difficult in getting people pass the roadblock that they don’t have the right not to be offended. I’m all for creating a safe campus environment, but that doesn’t mean not being exposed to speech that you disagree with or find deplorable. The most exciting part of trying to change the policies has been getting people talking. Even if the policies don’t change this year, our attempt to do so has stimulated a greater conversation about the importance of free expression at Pitzer. That’s been worth the work.
FIRE: In 5 years, what is your hope for the state of free speech at the Claremont Colleges?
I hope that in 10 years administrators, students, and faculty of the Claremont Colleges have not just changed the institutions speech codes, but have learned to embrace free speech and all that it can bring to an academic community. Free expression should be a core value of all of the institutions here in Claremont, in both theory and practice. Luckily, with California’s Leonard Law and little tolerance by students for overzealous administrators, I think that this could be a reality.
FIRE: What advice do you have for other students who want to promote student rights on their campuses?
Beyond getting students excited about changing the policy, I think it is important to reach out to administrators directly. While they might not agree with you, letting them know that you are trying to change the policy is a good first step. Many administrators come from a mindset of not even thinking about the free speech issues at hand, and you can make the entire process a whole lot easier on yourself by checking on where they stand with making changes. Also, be sure to frame the message around your campaign to the issues that most affect students at your institution. At Pitzer, we have a fair amount of students who believe in protest, so when I talked about our speech codes, I made sure to touch on how it affected political groups on campus.
One more thing that I think many overlook when trying to reform speech codes at their school is not customizing. Every school has it’s own campus culture and identity—large university or small liberal arts college—use that to your advantage when starting your campaign to make change.