Lafayette College Misunderstands Partisan Speech

October 20, 2006

Lafayette College has denied permission for Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann to speak on the Lafayette campus. The Lafayette College Republicans had invited Swann to participate in a conference call with other Pennsylvanian College Republican chapters. President Daniel Weiss said that Lafayette’s decision was necessary to maintain the college’s political neutrality, a ridiculous claim given that it was not Lafayette but the College Republicans that invited Swann. Two years ago FIRE released a “Statement Regarding Censorship of ‘Partisan’ Speech on Campus” to address this misunderstanding of partisan speech. It reads in part:

If the First Amendment means anything at all, it means that speech must be free to influence the political process in this country. The founders of our nation considered the Bill of Rights essential because they recognized that true democracy would be impossible if one were not free to advocate political positions, whether they be mainstream, revolutionary, conservative, or anywhere else on the ideological spectrum. It is hardly an argument that speech should be censored because it might be used to change a person’s point of view so close to an upcoming election. Speech often serves its greatest societal function when it is used to change minds through reasoned debate and discussion. The concern of college administrators should not be the maintenance of an artificially-imposed “balance” but instead the protection of open discussion, expression, and candor.

At private schools such as Lafayette that strongly promise free speech, student groups are generally free to invite speakers to campus. If groups are allowed to invite speakers to campus at all, partisan student groups should not only be allowed to invite partisan speakers but expected to do so. A school’s partisanship and its non-profit status actually become potential legal issues when some groups are allowed to invite partisan speakers while others are denied. We will be looking into this case further and urge students at Lafayette to contact FIRE.

Schools:  Lafayette College