In 2006, FIRE wrote about Rutgers University–New Brunswick and its Orwellian “Bias Prevention Steering Committee.” The mission of the various deans, administrators, and staff members who comprised the committee was to monitor reported acts of bias which, startlingly, included “cultural conflicts” defined by the University as “disagreements, arguments, or controversies that developed due to the cultural differences, backgrounds and lifestyles of the disputants in the conflict.”
By 2010, the Steering Committee had evolved into the Bias Prevention Education Committee (BPEC), but retained its unconstitutional program of policing protected expression by targeting hazily defined instances of “cultural conflicts” and “inappropriate language.” The committee also claimed the authority to prosecute those who engaged in perceived acts of “bias” with wholly undefined “systems of adjudication and reprimand.”
As if that wasn’t enough to raise the eyebrows of any liberty-loving student “on the banks,” as we Rutgers denizens refer to our campus, the committee took the astonishing step of reserving for itself the right to punish violations that didn’t actually violate any rules. As of August of last year, BPEC stated that it would address “acts [that] may not always be in violation of civil, criminal, or University codes,” but nonetheless warrant intervention and reprimand, at least according to BPEC. This incredibly broad provision granted BPEC the power to restrict and sanction the expression of any student whose values happened to differ with those of the committee members at any one fleeting moment.
The policy earned Rutgers a red-light rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database, and for good reason: The idea of an ad hoc committee of administrators possessing the license and mandate to roam the campus enforcing amorphous standards of “bias prevention” is a chilling one. How can a Rutgers student expect to adhere to community standards when those standards aren’t even defined?
Thankfully, Rutgers’ Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities has now revised BPEC’s directives. The Center’s university website now explicitly notes that none of its interventions will result in disciplinary action taken, and that only acts which rise to the level of actual student conduct violations, as defined in Rutgers policy, will be handled by the Office of Student Conduct.
As a rising Rutgers senior and free speech advocate, I am immensely proud of my school for taking steps to address the policies that infringe on its students’ First Amendment rights. In my experience, the bias prevention policies were never all that vigorously enforced on campus. Valuable classroom discussions and debates—yes, even those that “developed due to cultural differences, backgrounds and lifestyles”—take place within Rutgers’ halls, and students are rarely carted off to the dean’s office for exploring and engaging with those of different backgrounds and experiences. More than likely, BPEC was unable to really implement its program because it is so antithetical to what the university learning environment is supposed to be. The free exchange of ideas is the foundation of higher education, and to squelch that exchange would be to undermine all of Rutgers.
But even if the policy wasn’t being vigorously enforced, it was still deeply problematic. As Sam has noted here on The Torch, having broad policies on the books leads to self-censorship, uncertainty, selective enforcement, and misinformation about the extent of student rights. The change in policy is a valuable and commendable statement in and of itself because, as the higher-ups at Bryn Mawr College agreed in a similar situation last year, such policy revision has the power to “clarify to students and administrators at the college that protected expression may never and will never be investigated or punished.”
This guarantee is especially timely at Rutgers, where last year’s tragic suicide of a university student who had been the victim of privacy invasion has put the campus on edge regarding instances of bullying and harassment—and has also produced redundant, knee-jerk legislative efforts. We in the Rutgers community must ensure that our ambitions for civility and mutual respect include mutual respect for each others’ rights to free expression.
And yet, even as Rutgers sheds its red-light rating, all is not perfect for free speech rights on the banks. The university still has a yellow-light rating in Spotlight because it maintains an overbroad harassment policy and unconstitutional “free speech zones” that confine students’ First Amendment rights to a limited square footage. But if Rutgers’ administration continues to evolve and preach through its policies what its students practice every day via their personal expression, the future is bright for free speech in New Brunswick.