Why Did Stevens Institute of Technology Eliminate Free Speech Protections?

April 19, 2010

If you are a student at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, you should be aware that your university has eliminated significant protections for free speech from its Student Handbook. The list of “student rights” in previous versions of the Handbook included the “constitutional rights of freedom of expression and assembly, and the rights of freedom of press for all student publications” as well as the “freedom to write and distribute printed material for reasons that are not commercial without the exercise of prior restraint.”

In the 2009-2010 Student Handbook, those two rights are notably absent from the list of “student rights.” Still there, however, are the rights of “respect for personal feelings” and “freedom from indignity”—extra-constitutional “rights” that should be of particular concern now that the right to free speech has disappeared. Although Stevens is a private institution and thus not bound by the First Amendment, it does promise its students free expression. The school’s Policy on Academic Freedom states that

Stevens Institute of Technology’s central functions of teaching, learning, research, and scholarship depend upon an atmosphere in which freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication, and peaceable assembly are given the fullest protection. Expression of the widest range of viewpoints is encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.

So eliminating explicit guarantees of free expression while retaining two promises of freedom from offense means that students at Stevens are now far more likely to be punished for all manner of speech that’s protected in society at large but still may offend other students: jokes, satire, political parody, you name it. Stevens has regrettably decided to teach students that a right that American citizens don’t actually have—i.e., the “right not to be offended”—is now more important than freedom of speech.

The disappearance of strong free speech protections from the Student Handbook is highly suspect and ominous. Someone in the Stevens administration made a conscious decision to eliminate those provisions, and if I were a student at Stevens, I would want to know why. It is certainly a question that FIRE will be asking Stevens as soon as possible, and we will be sure to let you know what we find out.

Schools:  Stevens Institute of Technology