Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute ignores concerns about new policy

October 18, 2019

Last month, FIRE wrote a letter to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where administrators created a new policy requiring students to get permission before sharing a flyer or letter on campus. 

RPI has a long practice of using its policies to burden critics of its administration, even claiming that its policies require students to get permission before handing out a flyer on a sidewalk. That claim drew criticism from FIRE and the New York Civil Liberties Union, as RPI’s administration was attempting to enforce a policy that didn’t exist — and, even if it did, such a policy would run afoul of RPI’s public commitment to freedom of expression.

As we explained in September, RPI was citing a policy when attempting to punish students for handing out letters and flyers on campus: 

But, as FIRE pointed out, there was no such policy — and even if it existed, requiring students to get permission from an administrator to hand out a flyer on campus cannot be squared with a commitment to freedom of expression. . . . (Because RPI is a private institution, the First Amendment does not compel it to recognize students’ expressive rights, but RPI nevertheless promises to do so.) The NYCLU went further, questioning why RPI’s administration was enforcing policies that did not appear to exist.

As the NYCLU and FIRE charged, RPI’s administration had been enforcing a policy that did not actually exist. Despite the litany of warnings from civil liberties organizations, RPI has now created it. 

That policy did not exist until RPI, having already enforced it, finally wrote it this fall.

We asked RPI to explain itself, pointing out (again) that requiring students to get permission before engaging in basic expressive activity is, as the Supreme Court has rightly explained, a notion “offensive” not only to “the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society. . . .”

RPI’s answer? Silence. The Institute’s leadership has not responded.

As a private institution, RPI is not required by the First Amendment to recognize students’ expressive rights. However, it promises students that it will. 

RPI also promises its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, that it will meet its standards. Middle States’ Standard on Ethics and Integrity requires:

An accredited institution possesses and demonstrates the following attributes or activities:

  1. a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and respect for intellectual property rights;
  2. a climate that fosters respect among students, faculty, staff, and administration from a range of diverse backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives;
    [… and]
  3. the avoidance of conflict of interest or the appearance of such conflict in all activities and among all constituents[.]

Middle States’ standard on freedom of expression is straightforward. Of the various standards set by regional accreditors, Middle States is arguably the strongest.

It’s not surprising that RPI’s leadership has no explanation for the gulf between its promises and its newly-minted policy. Its decision to create this policy was a conscious one: RPI has been repeatedly warned that a policy requiring permission to hand out a flyer would be inconsistent with the institution’s obligations to protect students’ freedom of expression. Its administration has no answer because it fundamentally does not believe in the promises of freedom of expression it has made.

This cavalier approach should be concerning to RPI’s board, in addition to its students, faculty, alumni, and local community. While nobody believes that RPI’s accreditation should be withdrawn, those promises must mean something, and Middle States has previously demonstrated that it takes institutions seriously when they fall short on their promises of freedom of expression. Even if Middle States took the initial step of asking RPI’s administration to explain the inconsistency in its promises and its delivery — as Middle States did at Mount St. Mary’s University — that act alone would harm RPI’s reputation. 

After years of naked censorship of student activists, RPI’s administration has no credible explanation for crafting new speech-chilling policies. What happens when others start asking them for answers?

Schools:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Cases:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Security Officers Oust Flyer-Distributing Students from Sidewalk, Citing Eminent Domain