This article appeared in The Huffington Post.
Congratulations to the administration, and President Raj K. Chopra, of Southwestern College (SWC) in Southern California for being awarded a 2010 Jefferson Muzzle Award for achievement in censorship! The “honor” was bestowed by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which “annually recognizes those who in the preceding year committed some of the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to the First Amendment right of free speech.”
In 2009 Southwestern College, as I’ve been covering since November, not only banned three professors from campus after they participated in a peaceful protest, but also kept free speech restricted to a single small patio on campus. Yes, you read that correctly: a Free Speech Patio.
Ah, can’t you just taste the freedom?
Though the professors were eventually allowed to return to campus in the face of pressure from FIRE, the ACLU, the law (SWC kept them off campus for the whole two weeks allowed by law), and the public, FIRE has continued to remind SWC about the absurdity and brazen unconstitutionality of the Free Speech Patio. Though SWC formed a committee to rewrite the policy months ago, it doesn’t seem to have taken these issues very seriously. SWC should understand that every time a speech code has been challenged since 1989, the case resulted in a loss for the college or university trying to defend it. Besides, it should be obvious that students and faculty members deserve more free speech than can fit on a patio, for goodness’ sake.
As for honorable mentions in censorship achievement for 2009, I believe Bucknell is also deserving of recognition for denying students the right to satirize the government’s stimulus plan. As you can see in my previous post about this, Bucknell disputes this, claiming they have the power to control political satire and protests as “solicitation.” Seriously, Bucknell, think about that argument: do you really want political handbills to enjoy no more protection than pizza coupons? In the real world, under the First Amendment, handbills enjoy the utmost protection and cannot be limited by restrictions on advertising, which is understandably much less stringently protected.
Meanwhile, the college most deserving of public shaming for its failure to defend free speech in 2009 is, in my opinion, Yale University. In one incident a Yale administrator or two encouraged the censorship of a F. Scott Fitzgerald quote in which a character in one of his novels referred to Harvard men as “sissies.” In another, the university intervened to prevent a Yale University Press book about the Mohammed cartoons from showing any depiction of Mohammed–including the cartoons that were the actual subject of the book. Earlier this year Yale backed away from its handling of “sissygate” but stood by its more serious and troubling intervention against the book, The Cartoons That Shook the World.
Yale, Bucknell, and Southwestern College all need to get back to the fundamentals: our colleges and universities are supposed to be the centers of innovation, debate, and discussion for our entire society. As such, they not only have to tolerate speech that might offend; they need to, in fact, encourage all speech, especially that which provokes and generates debate and dialogue. Forgetting this role undermines the very purpose of our colleges and universities and makes it more difficult to have the serious discussions our society desperately needs.
I hope 2010 is a better year for free speech on campus, but in the meantime, enjoy your Muzzle award, President Chopra and Southwestern College. You really did earn it!
Schools: Southwestern College