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‘Fee Speech’: When University-Bank Partnerships Silence Students

Last October, FIRE intervened to protect student speech following a disturbing incident at Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC), where student Marc Bechtol was kicked out of classes mid-semester and banned from campus for two additional semesters for violating the school's policy prohibiting any "offense which, in the opinion of the administration or faculty, may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community."

Bechtol's offense? He criticized an agreement between CVCC and financial service company Higher One that required CVCC students to carry Higher One debit cards that would also serve as their student IDs. FIRE quickly came to Bechtol's aid, and his shocking case garnered national media attention. (See this article, this article, and this article, and while you're at it, check out this one from The New York Times, too). After FIRE intervened, CVCC abandoned its punishment of Bechtol–but unfortunately, the college has refused to reform its unconstitutionally vague policy banning action that "may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community."

So why am I writing about this again now? Well, last month the United States Department of Education issued guidance about problematic university deals with banks—confirming that Bechtol isn't alone in his concerns about college/bank partnerships. The Department of Ed's worries are shared by others, too. For example, last week, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released a report supporting Bechtol's dissent. The report highlights that university and college partnerships with banks (and particularly Higher One, which now has contracts with over 520 campuses) can be exploitative of students, potentially charging excessive fees and hampering students' ability to make their own banking choices. For those interested, this article in the New Haven Independent is a fairly thorough look at the report.

While FIRE takes no position on the costs and benefits of college/bank partnerships, Marc Bechtol's case is a chilling reminder of how conflicts of interest can lead to student censorship—censorship that FIRE will always combat. And that's a promise you can take to the bank.

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