Pride and prejudice

January 24, 2007

We’ll be the first to confess, we were a bit upset about an article that came out in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette Sunday. According to the article, “Rights Group: UA limits speech,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization out of Philadelphia, gave the UA a “red light” ranking in its survey of 328 schools—public and private—across the nation.

“Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses” found that most of the universities surveyed, about 70 percent including the UA, “explicitly prohibit speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The main beef with the UA was that its policies regarding what qualifies as threatening and sexual harassment were too broad and ambiguous at best.

There were several reasons we were upset, the main one being the Traveler hadn’t had the pleasure of breaking the story. We’re a terribly proud group, always ready to thrust our flaming pens of truth into the air and cry “injustice!” and this sort of First Amendment story would have been perfect fodder.

What we weren’t upset about were the findings. It barely provoked an apathetic shrug from several members of the editorial board. Over the years, the Traveler staff has become inured to the occasional attacks from the administration and student groups, demanding the paper’s speech be … restricted. Indeed, the reaction by the administration to the reporter’s questions met our exact expectations of skirting the issue and offering complete fallacies.

William Kincaid, the UA associate general counsel who addressed all questions, was quoted as saying, “The university is strongly committed to freedom of speech for all members of the university community … Those values are deeply ingrained in higher education in general and in the University of Arkansas in particular.”

We had a two-second brainstorming session before recalling that Gary “Moses” Bowman had to go to court in order to speak freely to students at an unlimited and designated public forum (The Union Mall), not to mention the bullying tactics used by the university administration to stop the distribution of T-shirts that parodied football head coach Houston Nutt in October 2006. This quick sample might not be students expressing free speech but you always lead by example.

No, we weren’t surprised or upset by the survey or the administration’s response. What did upset some of us was the complacent manner in which the Associated Student Government President Quinten Whiteside addressed the issue. We understand reporters sometimes call up an unsuspecting soul and throw question after question at him until some kind of quote comes tumbling out. It wasn’t fair to ask Whiteside’s opinion on the matter when he possibly hadn’t even heard of the study beforehand. But as ASG president, Whiteside was, in theory, speaking on behalf of all students on campus.

Whiteside’s comments on the issue were straight from a career politician’s handbook. While simultaneously paying lip service to the work of the foundation, he did not “necessarily agree with the content of the report’s message,” and of course he believes students should be allowed to exercise free speech.

He managed to say nothing about the issue and offend no one, although, it should be pointed out that he was clear that students should take one of the “avenues” of free speech offered by the university. Say, the five-days-a-semester cap on speaking once imposed—excuse us—offered to Bowman?

Like we said, we expect this sort of rhetoric from the UA administration but we hope in the future, the student representative to the public will not stand behind the non-statement of professional politicians, but one reflective of the student body: complex, conflicted and rooted in the basic principle of intellectual exposure and freedom.

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