Speech, press and college campuses

March 27, 2011

Academic institutions are supposed to be havens for ideas, even those that are unpopular. Aren’t they?

Sometimes it depends on the idea. Just ask Jamie Pizzi, author of a March 17 column in The Sandspur, the cleverly named campus newspaper at Rollins College in Winter Park.

A Rollins freshman and member of The Sandspur’s staff, Pizzi weighed in on the issue of "anchor babies," children who are born in the United States and automatically granted citizenship under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Pizzi argued that it was wrong for children to gain automatic citizenship when their parents are in this country illegally, and that taxpayers who are here legally shouldn’t have to pay for benefits that child might receive.

The student’s column, appearing on a page that was clearly labeled "Opinions," was accompanied by an illustration depicting a buglike alien sitting in a chair, feet propped up, watching TV. Behind it a man is standing, hands on hips, frowning.

The column wasn’t especially remarkable, restating well-worn arguments. Neither was the illustration, which, while heavy-handed, wasn’t out-of-bounds material for college newspapers, known for pushing boundaries.

No, it was the campus reaction that’s worth talking about. A couple of faculty members sent e-mail blasts to every student and staffer at Rollins. In one, Kathryn Norsworthy, a professor of graduate studies in counseling, wrote that she was "shocked and deeply disturbed by the xenophobia and racism in the article and accompanying image."

That wasn’t enough. Norsworthy wrote that she was reminded of "the imagery used historically to dehumanize and ultimately ‘exterminate’ or perpetuate violence on marginalized groups (Nazis depicting Jews as rats during the Holocaust, white people’s depictions of African-Americans during slavery to justify lynchings, etc. …)"

So, here you have a faculty member putting the work of students next to something that Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry might have dreamed up. ("Godwin’s law" speaks to the pitfalls of using Nazi references. Google it.)

From there the comment board for Pizzi’s column lit up, getting more than 180 postings when most other Sandspur stories seem to attract comments in the single digits. The comments were a predictable mix of sober observations and angry rants, not only about the column and the faculty members’ response but also about the larger issues of free speech and free press.

The outcry got so loud that a public forum was held Thursday, attracting a couple of hundred students, faculty and staff members.

The central point seems to be whether the column and illustration were appropriate for The Sandspur to publish. The answer is yes, they were, as judged by the newspaper’s editors. The content wasn’t racist, as some critics contended. Neither was it hate speech. Both article and illustration could have been more subtle, but the breathless nature of the criticism is unwarranted.

One student at the forum identified himself as an anchor baby and said the column made him mad. Really mad. But he then pointed out that it was just one opinion and on a page meant for opinions. His message: Get over it. Well said.

But college campuses often have a hard time getting over dissenting opinions.

A group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stays busy looking into cases of speech suppression on the nation’s campuses.

"We receive case after case after case," said Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. "Typically someone is offended and believes they have a right not to be offended."

The group’s most recent survey of speech policies at 390 college campuses gave 67 percent of them a "red light" rating, meaning they had at least one policy that "clearly and substantially" restricts protected speech, or they restricted access to speech-related policies.

Rollins wasn’t part of FIRE’s survey, and nothing in the administration’s response suggests the college itself was attempting to silence Jamie Pizzi. In fact, the openness of Thursday’s forum suggests the college has an enlightened viewpoint on freedom of speech.

It’s a good lesson for those college students and faculty who view tolerance as a one-way street.