With election season heating up just as fast as the summer weather, it seems that the urge to shut down political speech on campus has once again reared its ugly head. The most recent case in a long line of election–related controversies over the years is taking place at Texas A&M University, where student organizations have lost access to advertising space on Texas A&M computers following protests over an ad placed by the Texas Aggie Conservatives (TAC).
Until recently, student organizations on the Texas A&M campus were able to place ads to run on screensavers on university-operated computers in campus libraries. However, when TAC placed a recruitment ad featuring an image of President Obama, it was labeled "racist," "hate speech," "not consistent with Aggie values," and, preposterously, a "genuine national security threat." (A copy of the advertisement is available here). In light of these complaints, Vice President of Information Technology Pierce Cantrell chose to shut down the advertising service completely, saying that some individuals were "offended by the ad for various reasons" and that "At least of couple of them seemed to feel it was more overtly political than a simple announcement to join a student organization."
Rather than shutting down an entire forum and robbing student organizations of advertising space, university officials should have reacted by encouraging more speech. After all, the power of participatory democracy is fueled by the ability of citizens to engage with each other and discuss political ideas and candidates. Those who had issues with the TAC ad could have responded with a counter-ad, an opinion column, or a campus event in favor of President Obama’s candidacy. Unfortunately, the response at Texas A&M is one that FIRE sees all too often, as students choose to censor one another rather than debate and administrators take the "easy road" of silencing viewpoints rather than encouraging discourse. As we enter into what is sure to be an active election season, FIRE once again reminds those on campus that the most powerful response to speech with which one disagrees is discussion and debate, not censorship.