ATHENS, Ohio, October 9, 2012—Ohio University dorms are no longer censoring students’ political speech, freeing students to make their voices heard in the final weeks before Election Day. After student Jillyann Burns was ordered to remove a flyer criticizing both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney from her residence hall door, she turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Our society has long recognized that not only does political expression deserve the strongest protections against censorship, but that the college campus is of particular importance to our national dialogue,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “Thankfully, Ohio University saw the light before doing even more damage to the First Amendment.”
In early September 2012, Burns, a member of the student group Ohio University Students for Liberty, taped a flyer to her residence hall door in James Hall, criticizing Obama and Romney and suggesting that the two would govern similarly on a range of political issues. On September 6, a resident advisor informed students via email that “NO political posters/flyers should be hung in the hallways or on you[r] door until 14 days before an election.”
Following a room inspection by Residential Coordinator Micah McCarey on September 17, Burns received an inspection form listing OU’s requirement that “political posters not [be] displayed outside room until within 14 days of election date” as a “Corrective Action.” OU’s residence hall policies state that this 14-day window was dictated by OU’s “political campaign policy,” though neither FIRE nor Burns could find any such policy in existence. The inspection form also noted that failure to remove the poster within 48 hours could result in referral to OU’s disciplinary system. Burns responded by taping a sheet of paper with the message “Censored until further notice” over the flyer.
FIRE wrote to OU President Roderick McDavis on September 28, reminding OU of its binding legal obligation as a public university to respect student First Amendment rights. FIRE’s letter pointed out that doors in OU residence halls are commonly used as venues for individual student expression, and that protected expression may not be prohibited merely because of its political content. FIRE emphasized that OU’s censorship was of particular concern given the proximity to Election Day, when unfettered political discourse is of crucial importance.
Fortunately, OU quickly addressed FIRE’s concerns. On October 1, Burns received an email from McCarey informing her that she was free to post political materials on her door and that OU “will work to clarify posting policies immediately.”
“Though we’re happy that Ohio University quickly realized and corrected its error, we’re still concerned that universities are willing to obstruct their students’ political expression in the first place,” said Peter Bonilla, associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Colleges across the country ought to be providing more space for students’ political speech, not less.”
To address the widespread censorship of political speech on campuses across the country, FIRE has issued an updated Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus, which was first published by FIRE in 2008 following a spate of election-year abuses of free speech. A copy of the statement was included with FIRE’s letter to Ohio University.
“This latest incident shows that there is still great capacity for confusion when it comes to a student’s right to speak his or her mind on political matters,” Bonilla added.
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.
Peter Bonilla, Associate Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org