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Why Private Schools Need to Follow Their Own Rules

While Robert’s latest blog discusses the difference between public schools and private schools in relation to sectarian institutions, I’d like to discuss the dichotomy in more depth, especially in regard to the schools which Jon B. Gould mentions in his piece (subscribers only) in the Chronicle—Brown, Johns Hopkins, and Pace.
FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus states:

Liberal arts institutions that advertise themselves as welcoming the fullest pluralism and debate too often have little time, patience, or tolerance for students who dissent from the political assumptions of the institution. Unlike many schools that openly declare a religious or other particular mission, most secular, liberal arts institutions still present themselves to the public as intellectually diverse institutions dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. They should be held to that standard.

We at FIRE believe that when a school, public or private, makes a promise to a student—whether in a student handbook or a brochure or a speech from the president—that school is morally and legally bound to honor that promise. If you doubt the negative effect that a false promise can have on a student, then read this passage written by a Hampton University student that Samantha blogged about earlier in the year. Hampton, a school that states it supports “equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of age, sex, race, religion, disability, ethnic heritage, socio-economic status, political, social, or other affiliation or disaffiliation, or sexual preference,” recently refused, for the second time in as many years, to recognize a gay and lesbian student group. In response, a gay student from Hampton wrote, “[M]any of us are suffering. We are regretting we came here under false pretense of equality. We are sad.”
Gould writes that during the first week of February this year, FIRE featured the private institutions of Brown, Johns Hopkins, and Pace. These examples are supposed to contradict a statement by FIRE’s former executive director that private institutions “should be permitted to ‘set up their own systems’ of speech regulation.” However, a quick look at Spotlight and FIRE’s case documentation shows that in setting up their own systems of speech regulation, each of these schools chose to publicly dedicate itself to free expression and association, and each school then dishonored that promise.
Not only is the Johns Hopkins motto “the truth shall make you free,” but the introduction to the Undergraduate Student Conduct Code reads, “Acceptance of membership in the University community carries with it an obligation on the part of each individual to respect the rights of others, to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas, and to obey the law.”
At Brown, administrators inexplicably suspended one of the university’s Christian student groups. However, as FIRE mentioned in our first letter to Brown, the school promises students “the rights of peaceful assembly, free exchange of ideas and orderly protest, and the right to attend, make use of or enjoy the facilities and functions of the University subject to prescribed rules.”

Finally, Pace Law School also chose not to recognize a student organization. Again, in the Pace Law School Student Handbook, the school states:

Each member of the University community is required to cooperate with the University in its endeavors to foster and maintain the freedom of expression and exchange of ideas necessary to achieve excellence in teaching, learning, scholarship and service. The University strives to protect the rights of its students and employees (including faculty members) to publicize opinions through written and oral communications; to organize and join political associations; to convene and conduct meetings; and to advocate, demonstrate and picket in an orderly fashion.

Concerned students from each of these schools came to us because they correctly believed that their school had promised them the right to speak and associate freely. And yet, at each school, for different and often unclear reasons, administrators chose not to honor those promises. How can we expect students to live full, intellectually rigorous lives while at school if they don’t know when administrators change the rules, unannounced and often conditionally, as they see fit?
FIRE does not tell private schools how they should define themselves or their missions. That, in effectively compelling speech and association, would be antithetical to our mission. We do expect schools to be forward and honest about their missions and promises; and we do expect schools to honor their statements once they have made them.

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