Unpopular Speech Policy Draws Scrutiny at Washington’s Olympic College

January 20, 2011

In Washington State, a new speech policy at Olympic College has proven to be unpopularso unpopular, in fact, that a professor assigned to a committee tasked with reviewing the policy seems to have quit the post because of his significant issues with it. The Kitsap Sun reports:

Though previously part of a committee tasked with reviewing the policy, English professor Nat Hong resigned from it during a forum on the policy Wednesday and sat in the audience to offer his opinion.

"I think a free speech policy by its very nature is Orwellian … You’re trying to limit it for administrative purposes," he said.

The Sun points out that the policy (posted here) was devised partly in response to the activities on campus of an anti-abortion group unaffiliated with the college. The policy was adopted in August, but portions of it have been suspended after students complained over its restrictiveness.

Judging from the policy language, I can see what folks were complaining about. Among the requirements placed on outside organizations wanting to bring their message to the Olympic College campus, groups must give a minimum of 48 hours’ notice to the administration, estimates on the number of people expected to be present, the "nature and purpose" of the event and, most eye-poppingly, "[o]ne copy of any materials intended for distribution or display."

Courts have ruled that the rights of outside organizations to demonstrate on college campuses may vary from those of students. However, there is an interest at stake for college students and faculty in seeing that everyone’s First Amendment rights are respected–especially when so much student discourse is already relegated to unconstitutional campus free speech zones as it is.

Professor Hong seems keen to this point, as does student Andrew Gentle, reminding administrators at a forum on the new policy of Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying that "[t]hey who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Not everyone attending the panel agreed, with student Sharon Reynolds saying, remarkably, "I think that there are places for free speech and demonstration, but the campus is not one of them." A misunderstanding of the role of the university as the marketplace of ideas, if ever there was one.

Fortunately, this seems to be the minority view at Olympic College, and the controversial policy will not be enforced while it is undergoing a thorough review. FIRE will be among those eager to see the results.