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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Case Western Reserve University Tramples on Free Speech

Each month, FIRE features a college or university with a particularly egregious speech code as its Speech Code of the Month. The Speech Code of the Month feature serves both to educate the public about the broader problem of speech codes on campus and to use public pressure to encourage particular institutions to abandon repressive policies. This month the winner is Case Western Univeristy!

From Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) --
FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for December 2010: Case Western Reserve University.
Case Western's "Use of University Facilities" policy provides that
University facilities and services may not be used for political fund-raising or to advocate a partisan position .... This restriction also applies to the use of campus mail services, university mailing lists and labels, duplicating and printing equipment, and telephones belonging to the university.
By its plain language, this policy prohibits any of Case Western's recognized student organizationswhich include Case Democrats, College Republicans of Case, Case Right to Life, Spectrum Gay-Straight Alliance, and Students for Justice in Palestine, to name just a fewfrom holding any on-campus event at which they express an opinion on a wide variety of political issues. According to this policy, a student cannot even make a call from the phone in his or her dorm room to discuss such issues!

Case Western is private, but it promises "the right to hold and express opinions different from our own." If, as the Use of University Facilities policy states, Case Western students are not free to express their opinions on the most important issues affecting Americans, this right is wholly meaningless. Like many universities that censor political speech, administrators at Case Western may erroneously believe that such a policy is necessary to preserve the university's status as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. However, as we have explained before in our Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus, "students, student groups, and faculty members do not endanger the 501(c)(3) status of private colleges and universities by engaging in partisan political speech when such speech is clearly separate and distinct from the institution's views or opinions. The presumption is that such speech does not represent the views of the university as an institution."

In addition to suppressing core political expression on campus, this policy is written so broadly that it cannot conceivably be enforced consistently, opening the door for arbitrary enforcement and double standards. A respect for substantive due process requires that a law must be capable of being enforced without arbitrariness. Taken literally, the Use of University Facilities policy prohibits most, if not all, political expression that takes place on Case Western's campus. Therefore, unless Case Western plans to discipline every student and faculty member who expresses a position on a political issue anywhere on campus or using campus telephones, its policy will necessarily be applied arbitrarily and at the sole discretion of administrators-a recipe for severe injustice. And as if that isn't bad enough, the policy also states that "[t]he university reserves the right to withhold from any individual or group the use of university facilities or service when, in the opinion of the university's officers, such use is not in the best interest of the institution"allowing Case Western administrators to suppress non-political speech as well, such as criticism of Case Western's policies.

For these reasons, Case Western Reserve University is our December 2010 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college's or university's policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE's Campus Freedom Network, which consists of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

1 comment:

  1. I believe you are misinterpreting the campus policy. As an active student, I can say the various student political groups (Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, radical, etc) have had no trouble effecting their messages on campus.

    Similarly, the university's hosting of the 2004 vice presidential debates shows their commitment to the public dialog. The campus newspaper highlights political events, and the radio station has aired both pro-choice and anti-abortion shows. It's wonderful to study in an environment with this kind of free speech.

    The only time I can remember a student's political speech being curtailed is when a Palestinian-rights group posted signs in an area where you need special permissions without actually getting those permissions. I hope but do not know for sure that they applied for permission afterwards, and were allowed to re-post their signs.

    The policy you link to is intended to prevent non-student political groups from utilizing campus resources paid for by student tuition and activity fees. Although I am personally terrified by the Tea Party's violent messages, racism, and the recent resurgence of far right-wing violence such as the shootings in Arizona, you too would be welcome to have a student group on campus. I just hope you don't shoot me for disagreeing with you.


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