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At Sinclair, Liability Concerns Trump Students' Expressive Rights

Mark Twain once quipped that we have “three unspeakably precious things” in America: “freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”

After all, expressing oneself can be very dangerous. Sinclair Community College thinks so, anyway.

You might recall that the college made headlines last year after police forced students at an on-campus rally to put away their handheld signs. Why? Well, in an interview with the Dayton Daily News, Sinclair President Steven L. Johnson said that colleges have a responsibility to protect their students and staff from domestic terrorism.

Yes, you heard that right.

Johnson was concerned that the signs could be used as weapons. “It has nothing to do with what was printed on those objects,” he said, “but what those objects could be used for.”

This logic suggests that every sign-wielding protester, from your average 1960s civil rights activist to your modern tea partier, carries in their hands a weapon that could be used for another event like the Virginia Tech massacre. (Yes, Johnson explicitly made that comparison.)

Concerns for campus safety are commendable, but Sinclair has routinely taken them to absurd lengths—contributing to what we at FIRE see as a sort of liability-industrial complex that infringes on students’ rights.

Thankfully, earlier this year, Sinclair’s “no signs” policy went the way of the Dodo after a First Amendment lawsuit forced the school to revise its restrictive elements.

Unfortunately, however, Sinclair’s liability complex didn’t die with the lawsuit. In fact, during these past two months Sinclair’s wackiness has ratcheted upwards, aided by some classic bureaucratic incompetence.

Earlier this semester, when students from Sinclair’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) wanted to put together a “free speech wall” event, the group’s event request was denied by the school’s Student Leadership Development office, citing—you guessed it—“liability issues.”

Free speech walls are temporary structures, usually wooden, with construction paper attached, that allow people to freely express their thoughts on any number of topics.

Sinclair bans “[e]recting, installing, or using any tent, tarp, shelter, or structure on campus.” Yet a quick perusal of Sinclair’s website demonstrates that the school has allowed exceptions to the ban before. Indeed, in this case it told the YAL chapter that if they received approval from the school’s facilities department for the construction of its wall, the group could go forward with the event—approval that the group sought and received.

But the day before the event—and two weeks after the event was approved—the Student Leadership Development office told the group that the office shouldn’t have approved the event because it broke campus policy. This, despite the fact that the group apparently received signed approval from Director of Student Affairs LaRue Pierce—the official in charge of approving such events.

Outsized liability concerns have overtaken common sense. Even when a student group follows school procedure, works with school officials, and teams up with on-campus departments—in this case, the engineering department, which should be plenty capable of building a fairly small wall that doesn’t fall over and crush students—it’s not enough to satisfy the campus bureaucracy. On Sinclair’s campus, liability trumps free expression. And common sense. And logic.

Worst of all, Sinclair students are still learning all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a participatory democracy. Students should be encouraged to participate in campus activities and engage with others, and they shouldn’t be bogged down by bureaucratic policies or overly cautious liability concerns in order to do so.

Every year, hundreds—if not thousands—of students participate in free speech wall events on dozens of campuses across the country. The campuses do not burn to the ground and the construction of the walls does not result in serious bodily harm. On the contrary, the preparation for the event and the dialogue that follows serve as a learning opportunity and a chance for students to engage with their peers.

Signs are not weapons and free speech walls are not dangerous structures. Sinclair should loosen its liability straightjacket and afford its students the same expressive rights that millions of their peers across the country already have.

Image: Police telling demonstrators to put down their signs during a rally at Sinclair Community College

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