AMHERST, Mass., April 16, 2009—Multiple First Amendment violations have rocked the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus in recent days. UMass has done nothing about the videotaped theft of and, later, the student government’s official censorship of The Minuteman, a conservative campus newspaper that mocked a student government official. Worse, last night, when a student senator offered a bill to reverse the unconstitutional censorship of The Minuteman, the Senate’s speaker had the UMass police throw him out (video of this incident is expected soon). These assaults on free speech came in the wake of last month’s disgraceful episode in which a speech by columnist Don Feder was shouted down by hecklers while UMass police officers did nothing. The many aggrieved parties on this out-of-control campus have come to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“The situation at UMass has spiraled out of control,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “UMass’ offenses against the Constitution are legion. So far, it has done nothing after copies of a student newspaper were stolen because the paper mocked a student government official, it has stood by while the student government unconstitutionally censored the newspaper, and it has allowed its police to be used to silence a free speech advocate.”
Mob censorship through the theft of newspapers is a recurring problem on America’s campuses. FIRE has acquired a video recording of the most recent such newspaper theft on the campus of UMass Amherst. Shockingly, it depicts a UMass police officer idly standing by as hundreds of copies of The Minuteman are stolen out of the hands of a student intending to distribute the paper.
One of the individuals who stole the papers, shown in a photograph as standing on a stack of papers and on video as grabbing them out of the other student’s hands, has been identified to FIRE as Vanessa Snow, the leader of UMass’ Student Bridges organization, a powerful campus organization strongly supported by the UMass Amherst Student Government Association (SGA). Snow was ridiculed by name in that issue of The Minuteman.
As if the theft was not enough, The Minuteman‘s mockery of Snow also resulted in official censorship. Last week, the SGA passed a resolution demanding that The Silent Majority, the student organization that publishes The Minuteman, publicly apologize to Vanessa Snow for its constitutionally protected mockery of her, or else face loss of recognition by the SGA, which would shut down both the organization and the paper. At the request of The Silent Majority, FIRE wrote to UMass Amherst Chancellor Robert C. Holub urging that the coerced speech and threat of punishment be rescinded immediately.
But the student government outdid itself last night after student senator Derek Khanna tried to place a resolution on the SGA agenda that would have rescinded the SGA’s unconstitutional decree of press censorship. SGA Senate Speaker Shaun Robinson not only refused to hear Khanna’s resolution but reportedly threw it on the floor, soon calling the police to eject Khanna from the SGA meeting after Khanna insisted that he be heard. Video of this incident is expected soon and will be posted on FIRE’s website.
“Not only has the SGA decided to unconstitutionally censor the press, it tried to do so through the unconstitutional method of coercing speech, and then it threw out the one person in the student government who was standing up strongly for Constitutional rights. It is difficult to imagine how the SGA could have more thoroughly abused the First Amendment and humiliated UMass,” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “UMass Amherst and Chancellor Holub must act immediately to rein in the SGA’s outrageous behavior before it results in further embarrassment and legal liability for the university.”
UMass’ spate of free speech problems on campus began in February, when a large group of students calling itself the Coalition Against Hate posted flyers inviting people to protest at a speech by columnist Don Feder that was to be hosted by the Republican Club. In response, the UMass Police Department pressured the Republican Club into paying an additional $444.52 for extra security at the event due to the threatened protest. The club agreed to pay the money, but the organized hecklers nevertheless disrupted Feder’s speech. (Video of the disrupted event is available online.)
Having been charged extra for security that was not even effective, the Republican Club contacted FIRE for help. FIRE wrote UMass, reminding the university of the Supreme Court’s holding in a 1992 decision that “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” After FIRE also published an op-ed in The Boston Globe, UMass publicly relented in a letter to the Globe. The letter announced that UMass would return the excess fee but deceptively claimed that UMass had only charged more money because of greater anticipated attendance at Feder’s lecture.
“UMass’ deceptive claim that it charged more for security only because of greater anticipated attendance fails to mention the fact that the university knew that attendance was greater only because a large number of students attended to protest and disrupt the event,” said Kissel. “A policy of charging a group for extra security when large numbers of people plan to disrupt an event will only encourage hecklers to shut down further events at UMass.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UMass Amherst and on campuses across America are detailed at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert C. Holub, Chancellor, UMass Amherst: 413-545-2211; email@example.com
Shaun Robinson, Speaker of the Senate, UMass Amherst SGA: 412-545-0342; firstname.lastname@example.org