In the fight for free speech on campus, FIRE does not operate alone. We rely on students (and faculty) to stand up for their rights to truly make a lasting impact. Fortunately, students at Loyola University Chicago were prepared to do just that, and they contacted us when administrators informed them that they would be required to censor certain speech at an event celebrating, why, free speech of all things.
In March, Loyola Students For Liberty (SFL) submitted a proposal to hold a three-day “free speech wall” event at Loyola’s Damen Student Center. In a meeting—required under Loyola’s policies—to discuss the planned event, Associate Dean of Students Kenechukwu Mmeje told SFL that it would be required to censor any “grossly offensive” messages written on the wall. When asked to clarify what the Loyola administration meant by “grossly offensive,” Mmeje told the students that he could not provide any specific definition.
Understandably concerned by the uncertainty about what speech Loyola would require them to censor (and dismayed that they were asked to censor any speech at all on a free speech wall), SFL followed up with several emails asking the administration to clearly explain its expectations. Finally, less than a week before the event was scheduled to take place, Mmeje informed SFL via email:
As it relates to our expectations surrounding the content of the board, the University’s Free Expression and Demonstration Policy and Approval Process (Community Standards, section 506, pg. 43) applies. Any language written on the board that threatens the safety or well-being of the University community, or otherwise run [sic] contrary to the University’s Catholic, Jesuit mission and heritage will be subject to removal. Every effort should be made to ensure that the language written does not violate the University’s Non-Discrimination Policy (Community Standards, section 511, pg. 48).
While Loyola is not, as a private university, legally bound by the First Amendment, we have written frequently about private universities’ obligation to adhere to the promises of free speech that they make to students. When SFL approached us for help, FIRE wrote a letter to Loyola, in which we reminded the university that it must honor its strong commitment to freedom of expression.
Several of Loyola’s policies indeed contain glowing language exalting the importance of free speech on campus. For example, one policy states:
Rational debate and controversy, the free exchange of divergent opinions, and the orderly expression of ideas are considered hallmarks of a university’s intellectual vitality and social awareness. This search for truth requires a free and open dialogue to exchange ideas and opinions. It also includes the freedom to express differing points of view, with the assumption that this exchange of ideas will promote clarity, mutual understanding, the tempering of harsh and extreme positions, the softening of hardened positions and, ultimately, the attainment of truth.
Any student attending Loyola would assume that the university meant what it said in this clearly-stated promise. But in order to reap the benefits of “the free exchange of divergent opinions,” Loyola must actually live up to its ideals. FIRE’s letter reminded the university of its promises to adhere to these principles, explaining:
LUC’s requirement that SFL censor messages written on the free speech wall that are “grossly offensive” or “run contrary to [LUC’s] Catholic, Jesuit mission and heritage” simply cannot be reconciled with LUC’s strong commitments to free expression, nor with its acknowledgement that such freedom is fundamental to the mission of higher education. While LUC asserts broad discretion to regulate the content of student speech, it cannot lay claim to the “intellectual vitality” derived from the free exchange of ideas while simultaneously excluding speech that is offensive or in conflict with the university’s “mission.”
How can the free exchange of ideas promote “the tempering of harsh and extreme positions … and ultimately, the attainment of truth” when some of those ideas and positions are categorically excluded from public discussion? Moreover, what constitutes “indecent” or “grossly offensive” speech will necessarily differ from person to person. See, e.g., Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1972) (noting that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric”). Students will understandably be confused as to what speech is permitted, particularly in light of the fact that LUC has previously allowed events such as productions of The Vagina Monologues (a work undoubtedly perceived by some as indecent or obscene). The impossibility of any predictable, fair, and consistent application of this standard is further highlighted by LUC’s failure to provide any definition of the terms in its policies and by Mmeje’s refusal—or perhaps inability—to define their parameters in his meeting with LoCicero. Students uncertain of what speech is prohibited are ultimately likely to engage in self-censorship rather than risk discipline—an unacceptable result at an institution of higher education.
Although Loyola did not write back to FIRE, SFL took the risk and pressed on with the event. While the first day passed without incident, the second day brought renewed fears that Loyola intended to follow through with its censorship requirement. Students staffing the free speech wall were approached by student center staff and told that they must remove the portions of the wall that contained profanity. After the students requested confirmation of this directive from an administrator, they were told that an administrator would stop by to issue the order in person.
Happily, no administrator ever came to insist on censorship. Instead, SFL received the following email from Damen Student Center Director Bryan Goodwin:
I was able to connect with K.C. Mmeje this afternoon (he is out of town at a conference) and we have agreed to not take down the profanity that is highly visible on the Free Speech Wall.
What we have also agreed upon is that we are going to create a sign that indicates that we do not endorse some of the profane language that is visible on the board. I am all for content based freedom of speech, but when that speech starts to include profanity such as it currently does, we do not endorse that.
I also wanted to approach you about the possibility of relocating the profanity that appears on the wall to an area that people would have to choose to see. As it sits right now, those words are highly visible to anyone that even catches a glimpse of the wall. I am hoping that this compromise would be something you may consider.
Lastly, if offensive language is going to start to be an issue with this wall and some of the staff/patrons that visit the Damen Student Center, we may not be able to continue to allow the exhibit to function in the Damen Student Center. This would be something that we (Damen) would discuss with Student Development administration going forward.
Of course, Loyola was well within its rights to clarify that messages written on the free speech wall were not endorsed by the university (although one might rightly question the reasonableness of Loyola’s concern, in the first place, that either a student organization or things written on a “free speech wall” could be seen as speaking for the university).
But Goodwin’s request to relocate the profanity, along with Mmeje’s initial censorship demand, neatly illustrate the role administrators play in “unlearning liberty.” Around the country, students are being taught that instead of ignoring or confronting speech that offends them, they have a right to not be exposed to that speech at all. Quite unfortunately, many heed this wrongheaded lesson, and instead of engaging in critical thinking and debate, they clamor for censorship—or perhaps even worse, commit the acts of censorship themselves. If not promptly corrected, Loyola’s actions threaten to reinforce the idea that there is a “right to not be offended,” doing significant damage to the marketplace of ideas upon which the university purports to place such high value.
Fortunately, although SFL declined the invitation to reposition the profanity, the final day of the event came and went without any further incident or censorship demands, and SFL reports that the event was an overall success.
While Loyola still has not responded to our letter, we are pleased that the administration appears to have paused to consider how its censorship demands conflicted with the university’s stated commitments to free speech. We hope that Loyola will unequivocally uphold these essential student rights in the future. And, of course, we applaud Loyola Students For Liberty for standing up for their rights.
If you encounter censorship on your campus, be sure to submit a case and let us know!