Presidential Candidates Debate On College Campuses, But Can The Students?

September 24, 2016

On Monday, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will participate in the first of three scheduled presidential debates, facing off at three college campuses: Hofstra University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The vice presidential contenders, Senator Tim Kaine and Governor Mike Pence, will have one debate, hosted by Virginia’s Longwood University. But what about the students at these host campuses—can they engage in the same rough-and-tumble, freewheeling debate that drives American politics (for better or for worse)? Sure they can—but only if they’ll agree to their university’s diktat that they do so in free speech zones, risk being summoned to meet with a “bias response team” if they offend another’s partisan political sensitivities, or get an administrator’s permission to pass out political flyers.

Take, for example, Hofstra University, where Clinton and Trump will hold their first debate Monday. A small, private institution just east of New York City, Hofstra is the only university to ever host three consecutive presidential debates. Hofstra advertises a commitment to the “importance of respectful free expression and exchange for learning,” and its faculty has put forth a strong statement supporting students’ interests in freedom of expression at the institution. While private institutions like Hofstra are not bound by the First Amendment, they are bound—contractually and morally—to keep the promises they make.

Despite its promises of cherishing students’ freedom of expression, Hofstra’s other policies undermine these promises. For example, students’ flyers on campus must be approved by administrators, “should not be offensive to others,” and “must not encourage any stereotypes, prejudices, sexism, or falsities.” Yet any number of political statements could be seen as “offensive” or based on “falsities.” It shouldn’t be the role of an administrator—a preternaturally conflict-averse group, to propagate a stereotype—to shield voting adults from political views the administrator finds offensive or wrong.

Then there’s Hofstra’s harassment policy, violations of which are grounds for disciplinary action, which prohibits “bullying” or “taunting.” That sounds nice. But reasonable people will have wildly differing views on what “bullying” is, and some may be tempted to classify the words of those they disagree with as “bullying” or “taunting.”

The next host campus, Longwood University, a public institution where the candidates for vice president will debate on October 4, takes the cake. Students there may be disciplined if they engage in a “bias incident,” which can involve expressing an “irrational,” “negative opinion or attitude toward a person or group” based on “actual or perceived” characteristics—including “[p]olitical or social affiliation.” Longwood University then declares that it may subjectively deem bias incidents to be punishable “abuse to persons,” including “verbal” or “graphic” abuse. That means that if your criticism of another’s political views—the type of speech which is at the very heart of the First Amendment—is so incisive and cutting that an administrator might subjectively view it as “abuse,” your “bias incident” may be punished. And this is at a public university hosting a political debate that may determine the outcome of a presidential election.

Longwood’s speech codes don’t end there. If Longwood students want to distribute “leaflets” or “political materials” on campus, they first must get an administrator’s prior, written permission if it involves a “campus-wide concern.” That policy provides no indication as to what bases an administrator will use to determine whether or not to grant permission. Granting administrators unfettered discretion to grant or deny permission to share written words on campus is plainly unconstitutional.

And what about Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), which will host the second presidential debate on October 9? Like Hofstra, WUSTL is a private institution unbound by the First Amendment, but it, too, pledges to uphold students’ freedom of inquiry and expression. Yet students there are prohibited from posting materials which do so little as reference “alcohol, drugs, or nudity” or are “sexist or discriminatory”—a definition that resides only in the subjective “discretion of the Residential Life staff.” That means that administrators remain free to decide whether, for example, a student may advocate for the legalization of marijuana, which universities often censor.

The final debate will be held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), on October 19. UNLV’s sexual harassment policy forbids, among other things, “gender related comments,” which could be read to encompass critiques of media coverage of Hillary Clinton. And for students who wish to express political views on campus, UNLV directs them to pass out “fliers of a political or non-profit nature” in a free speech zone, even if doing so elsewhere on campus wouldn’t interfere with UNLV’s operations.

While FIRE is a nonpartisan organization and takes no position on which candidate should assume the presidency, we do care about the state of freedom of expression on college campuses. Although President Obama has repeatedly addressed this issue, none of the major candidates has set forth how their Department of Education would approach freedom of expression on college campuses, despite the issue’s prominence over the past year.

Perhaps someone should ask them.