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Partial Victory for Free Speech at Hampton

HAMPTON, Va., December 6, 2005—Hampton University in Virginia has decided not to expel at least five of seven students for passing out anti-Bush flyers without university approval. Hampton students’ ability to pass out literature without university censorship was the subject of a letter sent by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to Hampton late last week.

“While we are relieved that the students were not expelled merely for passing out flyers, the fact that Hampton punished the students at all contradicts its alleged commitment to free speech,” remarked FIRE President David French.

Seven students at the private institution faced trouble with Hampton administrators after November 2, when they and others spent about half an hour in Hampton’s student center passing out flyers on issues including Hurricane Katrina, the Sudan, and the Iraq war. Police officers confronted the students, who did not believe they needed permission to hand out the flyers and who were eventually charged with offenses such as “posting unauthorized materials” and “actions to cajole or proselytize students.” A November 28 letter from Dean of Men Woodson H. Hopewell informed the students that they could face penalties up to expulsion for these activities, which at a public university would be protected under the First Amendment.

Several students contacted FIRE, which on December 1 wrote Hampton President William R. Harvey reminding him that distributing handbills, “since its use by our nation’s founders during the time of the American Revolution, has been seen as a special and fundamental right of all Americans,” and asking him to drop all charges against the students. FIRE also reminded Harvey that Hampton’s record on free expression has not been good; in 2003, the university seized all copies of an edition of the student newspaper because editors refused to print a letter from the then-president on the front page. Following an outcry from journalism organizations and the public, the university agreed to respect freedom of the press.

Last weekend, at least five of the seven students involved in the flyer distribution discovered that rather than being expelled, they had been sentenced to 20 hours each of community service. A similar punishment is expected for the two remaining students. The university also released a statement saying in part that “Hampton University has always and continues to be a champion of free speech and free expression.”

“How can Hampton publicly promise to be a friend of free speech but privately deliver repression?” FIRE’s French asked. “If Hampton is serious about its commitment to freedom, it must revoke these students’ punishment and change its practices accordingly.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities.

David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
William R. Harvey, President, Hampton University; 757-727-5231

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