Can you hear me now? How free is speech at Mason?

September 24, 2007

The freedom of speech is guaranteed to inhabitants of the United States under the Bill of Rights. While there are minor regulations on this freedom at all times, many students are beginning to wonder if one of their most basic, innate freedoms is being inhibited on and off George Mason’s campus.
Often times, students’ controversial speech is limited to specific times and places, such as organized rallies or meetings. Some students find this to be micro-managing on the university’s part, believing university officials want to inhibit speech for students, leaving controversial topics not only out of the public view but out of the classroom as well.
“Much of our freedom of speech is limited to certain zones around campus,” said Jasper Connor, a prominent member of Students for a Democratic Society. “This means that even in the classroom, we do not necessarily have the right to express our thoughts and ideas.”
The university has undoubtedly established these regulations to protect and honor many people and feelings in such a diverse university, but speculation has arisen that these limitations are not only more than the majority of students want or need, but that they are unjust as well.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s website, rated Mason as having a red light free speech policy, directly meaning that the university is censoring student speech. This rating is in response to a number of incidents. In one of which a student was arrested for handing out anti-military fliers next to a military recruiter in the Johnson Center. Descriptions of the event differ, but This student was reported by students and arrested under Policy 1110, which describes regulations regarding vending sales and solicitation. This rating also came after author and filmmaker Michael Moore’s lecture was canceled after many students and faculty wrote letters of discouragement to the president of the university about a liberal bias speaker on campus near election day. The university defended its action at the time by stating that Mason was not willing to pay the $35,000 Moore was asking to speak on campus.
“I believe that is a fair rating [by FIRE] for many reasons, one is that many clubs such as the Students for a Democratic Society has had trouble getting recognized by the university and a lot of other political groups have had trouble getting adequate funding,” Connor said. “If we do not have money, we cannot do things. There are inherent economic advantages and the school does not seem to care.”
While this limitation on speech affects all students, it may be clubs and organizations that get the brunt of the inhibitions. The university ultimately has full control over clubs and club activities when it comes to advertising events. Poster polices give administration complete control over what is allowed and what is not with policy codes such as “Posting of materials or distribution of flyers/leaflets without prior approval…will be considered as littering”. Policies such as these give administration total reign over what is appropriate and what is not.
Many clubs and organizations feel that their funding is inadequate to what other more prestigious or respected clubs are receiving. This funding would leave clubs with more opportunities to have meetings, go on trips or host a speaker.
“It is hard to get adequate funding to do certain things like make and post fliers. I think that the university looks the other way at many clubs and organizations that are more well-liked when they do not follow certain rules,” said SDS member Megan Cipperly.
Many students do not understand the university’s decision to regulate recognized and sometimes even academic organizations when businesses seem to have unlimited resources to advertise to students on campus.
“I don’t think profit organizations should be allowed to post signs at George Mason, this is an academic institution and people should not be advertising to us all of the time,” Connor said.
Past events, such as last year’s visit by John Lewis on April 25, and the perceived belligerent behavior of some of the students at this event, which interrupted the question and answer portion of the lecture may be what are inhibiting the free speech of other students. This highly controversial event was postponed once due to a public outcry.
“It seems that if the students were not mature enough to respect other people’s opinions then they are just hurting themselves,” Mason student Sam Brisini said. “It is like listening to Howard Stern on the radio: sure it is there, but there are 400 other stations as well. The people in opposition of John Lewis’ views did not have to attend.”
While free speech is a great cause to strive for, the reality of achieving it in such a diverse community is still debatable.
“To have complete free speech would be chaos within the student body,” Brisini said. “Free speech needs to be restricted in small amounts to create a cohesive and harmonious university.”

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