Pomona Student Asks, ‘Just How Much Freedom of Speech Do We Have?’

April 28, 2010

Pomona College student Jack Knauer ponders this question in an astute column published last week in Pomona’s newspaper, The Student Life. Two incidents from recent weeks spurred the column. First has been the college’s reaction to the painting of allegedly insensitive remarks on Pomona’s Walker Wall. Second, the Claremont University Consortium, which includes Pomona, was named FIRE’s April 2010 Speech Code of the Month.

Originally built as a stopgap to prevent mud and debris from nearby mountains from draining onto the campus, Walker Wall was repurposed beginning in 1975 after students painted a message of support for then-incarcerated activist Angela Davis. The administration decided to let the message remain, and gradually other students took to using the wall as their own outlet for a wide variety of expression. Today it functions as a living monument to free expression. Pomona acknowledges that its messages "may be transientsurviving only as long as it takes for another student to become inspired." Pomona’s student handbook says of the wall that "At its best, it is a lively and freewheeling public forum, a place where ideas are presented openly and artistic expression are offered for public viewing." 

The recent controversy over expression on Walker Wall was the result of the clashing of two campus traditions: the "Gaypril" events organized by the Queer Resource Center (QRC), and the annual "Beverage Scavvy" scavenger hunt, in which hundreds take part. The Queer Resource Center spent two days painting a gay pride flag across the wall, only to see several of the Bev Scavvy teams paint their names over QRC’s workreportedly one of the tasks assigned to the teams for this year’s competition. Some of the team names, like "Butt Pirates," were crude; another that proved offensive to many was the "Soggy Bottom Boys"a reference to the singing group from the Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? which seems to have been missed. 

Knauer states that "as a private institution, the college does not have a strict obligation to uphold First Amendment freedoms." In this case, however, he is incorrect. When it comes to student discipline, Pomona must uphold the First Amendment because of California’s Leonard Law, which provides in relevant part:   

No private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce a rule subjecting a student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article I of the California Constitution.

(Private religious colleges, however, are not bound by the Leonard Law.)

Knauer does point out, however, that "the protocol states that conduct ‘which is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or by analogous provisions of state law’" can be "considered a bias-related incident. Thus they take on the First Amendment as part of their own set of student liberties." This means that Pomona is bound not only by law but also by its own policies to refrain from punishing students for speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, protected speech continues to be the subject of those "pesky bias incident reports,"a situation that likely chills speech on campus. Knauer writes that the reports "became a joke for the most part," and it is not hard to see why, given what constitutes an "incident" over there: 

At Harvey Mudd College in 2008, officials alerted Campus Safety after the message "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" was found written on the whiteboard outside a student’s dorm room door. (The message evidently referred to then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.)

  • At Harvey Mudd College in 2008, officials alerted Campus Safety after the message "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" was found written on the whiteboard outside a student’s dorm room door. (The message evidently referred to then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.)
  • Around the same time, at Scripps College, a flyer for a "White Party" (encouraging attendees to wear white) was deemed racist and sexist.
  • Another apparently offending party invitation, for a "Wild Wild West" party, featured an image of Jesus Christ drinking a beer while holding a cigarette and the caption "Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the West and have come to party." 

Torch readers can read more about these bias response teams and their itchy trigger fingers hereherehere, and here.

The effects of real racism and bias are obviously no joke to those who are forced to face it. However, by consistently ignoring the ancient story about the merits of crying "wolf," the Claremont colleges have turned what may or may not be signs of real problems into a running joke on campus. It’s no wonder that Knauer and many of his fellow students stopped paying attention to these notices when so many (wearing white to a party is bad?) seem to have no basis in reality. Now that the Claremont University Consortium has been named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month, however, Knauer is taking a closer look at the quality of discourse on campus, starting with Walker Wall. 

Knauer writes:

Back to Walker Wall: Not even 24 hours after the rainbow was painted, it was partially covered by Bev Scavvy team names. There was an uproar about how it was "hurtful" and that it needed to be "fixed." Even though the names were not written with malicious intent and instead written with the intent of having fun, I understand how it can be hurtful. However, as the FIRE article points out, hurtful words are fully and rightfully protected by the First Amendment. … If the QRC has the right to display a symbol of pride for their community, other groups have just as much right to put up their own symbols.

Countervailing the general sensibility about campuses these days that students should be protected from offense, he forcefully argues:

As a proponent of freedom, I realize that each person has the right to believe what they want and express that opinion without fear of being intimidated or reprimanded. Furthermore, people should not be forced by an overbearing institution to accept all other groups. By not acknowledging that everyone is allowed to think, believe, and say what they want and trying to make them conform to what we think is the correct way to think, we are being closed-minded. In fact, we are being a little Orwellian. Thus true freedom of speech not only applies to words of pride for your community or other positive announcements but also words of negativity or plain disdain for other communities. 


I’m personally disgusted by racism, genderism, ageism, or many of the other ‘isms,’ but I love that they are allowed to exist in this nation. Their criminalization would mean an end to free speech. So if the administration shuts out some maybe not acceptable or palatable communities on campus in favor of other more liberal, acceptable communities, they are hindering free speech. As individuals, we don’t have to accept and embrace others’ beliefs but, in order to preserve freedom, we do have to tolerate and allow other views to be expressed. This applies to everyone: liberals, conservatives, students, workers, racial minorities, racists, straights, queers–everyone.

Walker Walldescribed on Pomona’s website as "a permanent symbol of free speech on campus"isn’t much of a monument to free speech if every allegedly insensitive or ignorant remark brings with it the possibility that Pomona administrators will simply erase it from view, favoring some speech and actively acting against other speech. (The Student Life reported that the "Soggy Bottom Boys" scrawling, along with "Butt Pirates" and two other names, were "deemed ‘obscene by community standards‘" and were painted over by the Pomona administration.) Even less does it represent free speech if any such remark is in danger of administrative sanction. Time and again, the Claremont colleges are proving that college commitments to free and open expression in theory often don’t work very well in practice, with administrators censoring and even punishing student speech that even their own policies say is protected. 

We hope students at Pomona and the rest of the Claremont Colleges will see Knauer’s excellent column as a reminder of their ongoing problem. Students should demand that the schools become the true marketplaces of ideas that they are advertised to be in their literature.

Schools:  Claremont University Consortium