PHILADELPHIA, September 16, 2008—After unconstitutionally denying students the right to pass out a student newspaper without prior approval, the University of Delaware (UD) has changed course and restored the rights of free expression and freedom of the press on its campus. The policy change came in response to a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) demanding changes to the university’s restrictions on student speech. However, the university has yet to explain why administrators made misleading statements to students about the nature of their rights.
“The right to freely distribute publications dates to the founding of our nation, when American newspapers and pamphlets encouraged resistance to British tyranny,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “For very good reason, then, their distribution is well-protected by the First Amendment. While we are pleased with UD’s policy change, we are disappointed that it took FIRE’s involvement to get UD to recognize this fundamental constitutional right.”
FIRE wrote UD President Patrick Harker after several students complained that on September 1, they were prevented by administrators from distributing a student newspaper, The LampLighter, on campus. The administrators told the students that distributing the newspaper counted as “solicitation” and would require a permit from the city of Newark, Delaware. When the students reminded the administrators that students enjoy a constitutional right to distribute materials, one UD administrator responded: “According to policy, they don’t.” UD policies required “approval” from administrators before published materials could be distributed, and banned distribution of anonymous published materials altogether.
“Delaware’s policies would have banned the distribution of both Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ and the Federalist Papers,” remarked Lukianoff. “Is this the lesson about American liberty that UD wants to teach its students?”
FIRE’s September 10 letter pointed out constitutional infirmities in both UD’s Distribution of Published Materials on Campus policy and the characterization of this policy by UD administrators to students. In response, Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert informed the students in a September 12 e-mail that the policy had been changed. While the previous policy required newspapers to be “labeled to indicate sponsorship,” the new policy states that UD only “encourages those who publish materials to identify themselves.” The new policy also omits any reference to published materials requiring administrative “approval.” While the new policy answers many of FIRE’s concerns, the university has yet to answer for the misleading statements of its administrators to UD students.
“A large research university should not have to wait for FIRE to teach administrators how to respect students’ rights,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “The past twelve months have been a boon to students’ rights at the University of Delaware, but only because the school could not defend in public its shameful violations of the Constitution’s guarantees.”
The policy change is the latest development in a tumultuous year for individual rights at UD. Over the past year, the University of Delaware also has had to end a thought-reform program in its residence halls; has had to change a speech code that required immediate notification of the authorities for any “oppressive” speech; has had to change a funding policy that provided only half as much funding to political student groups as to other student groups; and has lost the free-speech part of a lawsuit filed after a student was suspended, pending psychiatric evaluation, because of postings on his personal website.
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 on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.