On Tuesday, Columbia University suspended the Men’s Ice Hockey Club for the fall semester, effectively cancelling the club’s season. The reason? Club members, in a bid to recruit new membership, had posted flyers around campus containing the phrase “Don’t be a pussy.”
Apparently those words—a hackneyed play on Columbia’s team name, the Lions—were all it took for Columbia administrators to cancel the club’s season, place the club on probation until 2008, and require the club to make a formal apology to the Columbia community. This grossly disproportionate punishment was meted out despite the fact that the club had in fact publicly apologized last week and sought a meeting with Athletics Department administrators to discuss the incident.
In a statement released Tuesday, M. Dianne Murphy, Columbia’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education, sought to cast the incident as a failure to follow protocol, insisting that the club “acknowledge that it did not seek approval from Club Sports administrators before printing and posting the recruitment flyer,” and further stating that “[t]his disciplinary action is not related to free speech but rather the abdication of leadership responsibilities by senior members of the Club.”
Despite Murphy’s insistence to the contrary, it is clear that the club is being punished for the content of its speech. It is a real stretch to imagine an entire season being cancelled just because a club failed to follow proper flyer-posting procedure—and the Department's press release asks that the requested apology “recogniz[e] the offensive nature of the recruitment poster.” What’s more, club president M. Fergus Glynn has stated that he was unaware of any club sports policy regarding flyers, and had never been given any notice that such a procedure existed. To add final insult to injury, a double standard is at work: Glynn points out that the Student Council distributed t-shirts for a homecoming game against Princeton in 2004 that read, “We eat PUSSYcats like you for breakfast.”
Judging from the pages of the Columbia Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, reaction to the decision has been a mix of shock and outrage. Even Engineering Student Council President Daniel Okin, one of four student council presidents who first delivered complaints about the flyer to the Athletics Department, expressed his surprise, telling the Spectator that “We never wanted to get the hockey team in trouble…. We’re all a little shocked on the severity of the response—we weren’t expecting this.”
Responding to other events on Columbia’s campus just this past week, Columbia President Lee Bollinger opined that “[f]reedom to speak, pursue ideas, and even to hear and evaluate viewpoints totally objectionable to our own is central to America ’s greatness. It is also an essential value of our universities and, indeed, of our civil society.” For a private university that prides itself on its commitment to free speech, Columbia talks the talk, but has been as yet unable to walk the walk.
Yesterday, FIRE wrote to President Bollinger, urging him to overturn the deeply unfair decision. We sincerely hope Columbia lives up to its own imagination of itself as an institution that truly knows the value of free expression and demonstrates that commitment throughout the entirety of its actions.
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