Building a culture of free expression on college campuses isn’t easy work. Sometimes, administrators must be willing to tolerate criticism – even in scenarios where the First Amendment doesn’t necessarily require it.
A picture-perfect example occurred earlier this summer at De Anza College in California. There, during an athletic awards ceremony put on by the public college, a group of student-athletes gave speeches criticizing De Anza’s decision to put the track coach on paid administrative leave without notifying the team.
De Anza did not shut down the student-athletes’ speeches at the event but instead appeared to censor the livestream of the speeches during the portions featuring the criticism so anyone watching the livestream would have just heard silence during the time the student-athletes discussed their concerns. The rest of their speeches were audible.
The spirit of the First Amendment – and the spirit of De Anza’s own commitments to free speech – requires tolerating student criticism, even when it is inconvenient or unflattering for the college.
If De Anza did indeed deliberately silence commentary critical of the college, it’s not a good look — even if they may have the legal authority to moderate the content of their own livestream of a college event. As we told the college in an Aug. 28 letter:
While De Anza may retain the authority to moderate the expression it permits (or bars) in presenting audiovisual coverage of private college events, this kind of blatant censorship does not reflect well on its commitment to free expression and sends a chilling message that De Anza will censor students with whom administrators disagree.
When the college allows students to express themselves in a college event – even a private one the college controls – the spirit of the First Amendment should dissuade De Anza from censoring participants who criticize the administration. Otherwise, De Anza sends the unmistakable message that students who raise concerns or criticisms about the college will have their messages suppressed.
Censoring the livestream means limiting the messages’ reach to those physically present at the event. The spirit of the First Amendment – and the spirit of De Anza’s own commitments to free speech – requires tolerating student criticism, even when it is inconvenient or unflattering for the college. We urge administrators to remember this vital principle in the coming school year.