Doyle ’18: Proud to be a Brunonian where at least my speech is free

Opinions Columnist
Friday, September 18, 2015

If you’re a college student, you’ve probably already pictured dozens of ways you could get yourself kicked off campus. But here’s one you might not have considered yet: speech. Colleges across the country have begun cracking down on student and faculty speech through the means of speech codes, or policies detailing what kinds of speech are grounds for disciplinary action. Boston University, for example, has a written policy requiring students to show respect for the feelings of others while expressing any opinion.

So what? Respecting the feelings of others is positive. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There probably isn’t a way to effectively campaign for or against abortion rights, a legitimate issue, without offending a religious peer, a student who has undergone an abortion or anyone else with a strong belief on the topic. So a clearly well-intentioned policy technically prohibits substantive campus debate.

While this type of speech is generally protected by the First Amendment, students might not realize that the Constitution might not fully protect them on campus. Since BU, like Brown, is a private institution, it is well within its rights under contract law to make its own rules that students must agree to in order to attend. But most students, myself included, are unaware that these speech codes exist. While it is technically each of our responsibilities to thoroughly read the University’s policies, it is most likely the last thing on a nervous new student’s mind. And ultimately, if applied strictly, these speech laws could be incredibly harmful.

Here at Brown, we’re lucky to have an administration that is largely supportive of free speech and our right to peacefully protest or demonstrate. Still, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education lists Brown as a “red light” school, an institution that has one or more policies that substantially restrict free speech. The specific policy FIRE cites is meant to prevent sexual harassment, a pervasive problem at many universities. The harassment policy forbids students from posting sexual pictures or writing notes of a sexual nature that make another student uncomfortable. Once again, this is a well-intentioned policy that could be abused to limit student expression. To start, “of a sexual nature” is entirely subjective. An art project photographing partially nude models could be considered sexual or offensive by a student, but it would be a perfectly valid student expression dealing with such important topics as body image, sexism and more. So while harassment should indeed be a punishable offense, broadly worded policies could potentially be used to squash valid, non-targeted expression that one might simply disagree with.

Still, Brown’s speech code is one of the least troubling policies found at universities that prevent free expression. While political correctness is an ever-popular debate at Brown and can easily be lumped in with the idea of speech codes, the issue is entirely different. The way in which students choose to express themselves and expect others to do the same is a separate topic from the way in which the University controls our expression.

As a Brown student, an animal rights activist can pass out pamphlets on veganism on whatever part of campus he or she pleases. This wasn’t the case for one student at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona — a public university entirely bound by the First Amendment. Student Nicolas Tomas was punished by the university for expressing opinions outside of a mandated “free speech zone.” You heard me right. Up until a recent successful lawsuit, students at this public institution were required to sign up for a permit weeks in advance, wear a bright orange badge and stand in a designated area about the size of a parking space if they wished to express any opinion.

Tomas’ case is nowhere near an isolated incident. Cal Poly Pomona is only one of a disturbingly large number of public universities that recently had or still have free speech zones. Nicole Sanders, a student at Blinn College, was recently told she couldn’t hold a sign advocating gun rights without special permission. Meanwhile, Merritt Burch of the University of Hawaii at Hilo was prohibited from distributing copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day outside of the school’s free speech zone. These zones are not only entirely illegal, but also harmful to the spirit of debate and learning at an institution of higher education.

It isn’t automatically obvious why a public university would want to impose a free speech zone in the first place. Clearly a process that requires students to fill out applications, wear embarrassing badges and quarantine themselves to a remote area of campus works as a deterrent for any sort of demonstration. This is a way for administrations to prevent any sort of discord that might result from differing or strong opinions. For example, students would conveniently be stopped from protesting an unpopular campus policy. If this is the case, how can they exact change?

The freedom of speech we experience on our own campus is certainly not proof that Brown is an institution that is inclusive to all ideas, or even one that encourages free debate. In fact, one survey found that 30 times the number of Brown faculty members are Democrats than Republicans. Furthermore, students have been known to avoid hearing ideas they disagree with, such as in the shutdown of New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture. So Brown may not have a politically diverse campus, and some ideas may not be tolerated. Still, there is certainly something to be said for an administration that supports free expression where it does not legally have to. Our policies may benefit from some tailoring, but we should not take for granted the freedoms we are given that so many are denied.

Allie Doyle ’18 is probably at Baja’s.

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  1. You ain’t free when Paxson allows them to rape you. You can’t escape from her at Providence College either.

    • Really? More of the same exhausted, exaggerated invective? This contributes nothing to any substantive discussion, not to mention peddling falsehood and defamation. Kindly move along.

  2. Brown student says:

    Nice article!

  3. ShadrachSmith says:

    You don’t have free speech.

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