Bucknell should embrace free speech as Lehigh University does

October 20, 2009

It pains me to say it, but I owe Lehigh University an apology.

You see, I went to Bucknell. We’re rivals, you know. So as a proud member of the Bucknell family, I’ve considered it my job to make occasional fun of our nemesis in Bethlehem.

When I was in school, I even owned a T-shirt that said: ”Lehigh: Because not everyone can get into Bucknell.” Sophomoric, I know. But then again, I was a sophomore.

Now, I’m taking it back. I’m sorry, Lehigh. The reason is the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects our right to, among other things, freedom of speech. It’s not something a private university like Bucknell or Lehigh has to obey — it binds the government, not private entities — but it is something we should all respect, and even revere.

That’s why I was so interested to read in Lehigh’s student newspaper that the university is putting on a tribute to the First Amendment, ”Lehigh Celebrates the First.” It included a big event Monday — complete with the planting of a ”liberty tree” that will ”reaffirm Lehigh’s dedication to free expression now and in the future.”

Why would this cause me to repent of my past snide comments about the home of the Mountain Hawks? Because while Lehigh has been saluting the First Amendment, my alma mater has been shutting down peaceful protests.

In March, Bucknell administrators ordered a group of students to stop handing out ”Obama stimulus dollars” designed to criticize current fiscal policy in Washington. They claimed the students were violating a ”sales and solicitations” policy, even though they weren’t selling anything or soliciting anybody. And the next month, the university took more aggressive action when students dared to make fun of some of the university’s own policies.

That’s when the same student group sponsored what’s called an ”affirmative action bake sale.” Students sell baked goods at different prices according to the buyer’s race; whites or Asians generally pay the most, blacks or Latinos usually the least. The point is to paint a satirical picture of what the organizers say the university’s admissions office does — treat people differently based on their race.

The idea is borrowed from a feminist protest in which men have to pay a different price than women, symbolizing the famous wage gap. The University of Pittsburgh, for instance, recently held a wage gap bake sale without incident. But at Bucknell, administrators shut the bake sale down.

Initially, a dean blamed it on a paperwork error and invited the students to try again. So they did. He then labeled the event ”discriminatory” and said it could never happen. Bucknell’s general counsel has repeated this accusation — one of the most serious in our society — publicly since then. All of this can be verified at the Web site of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is defending the students.

Personally, I don’t like either bake sale idea and would not choose to participate in one. But if you know anything about the First Amendment and the values for which it stands, you know this: Free speech means you can say things I don’t like, and I only get to argue, not shut you up.

What Bucknell is doing sends precisely the wrong message to watching students who are, after all, learning how to agree and disagree in a free society. It is an utter embarrassment to all of us who love Bucknell, no matter what we think of current fiscal policy, affirmative action, or the wage gap.

That’s why I’m apologizing to Lehigh for my years of heckling. Much to my chagrin, Lehigh apparently has a much better understanding than my beloved alma mater of one of the most important values in our society: freedom of expression.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether I need to get another obnoxious T-shirt: ”Bucknell: Because only some people deserve freedom of speech.”

But mine is not the only apology needed. Bucknell’s president, Brian C. Mitchell, owes one to the students and faculty members whose rights are threatened by his administration’s arbitrary actions and the alumni whose degrees are being tarnished. He needs to condemn the recent censorship and proclaim publicly that all students, whatever they believe, will be free to express themselves.

Mitchell, whom I like and respect, has ignored calls to do this for six months. It is long past time he ended this insanity and unequivocally stood up for freedom of speech — following, odd as it might seem, in the footsteps of our rival Lehigh.

Charles Mitchell is a graduate of Bucknell University and a trustee of the Alliance for a Better Bucknell, a group of concerned alumni and friends of the school.

Schools: Bucknell University Cases: Bucknell University: University Slams Door on Student Satires of Obama Stimulus Plan and Affirmative Action