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A Crackdown on Free Speech at … Bucknell University?

University administrators clamp down on — who else — campus conservatives.

by
Robert Shibley

Bio

June 27, 2009 - 12:00 am
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The BUCC, taking Commerford at his word, quickly applied to have another bake sale protest a couple of weeks later. Mysteriously, this time they were told they would need special permission to hold such a “controversial” event. (Such a requirement is not found in any written Bucknell policy.) Their request came before Dean Commerford, who, of course, rejected the request in a recorded conversation. Inventing yet another requirement on the fly, Commerford told the students that they could only debate the topic of affirmative action in a formal debate-type format where the other side had an opportunity to speak at Bucknell.

At this point, the students turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which wrote Bucknell in protest. But Bucknell’s response, which came only after FIRE took the case public and embarrassed the college into responding, did not even address FIRE’s objections, and instead took the route of distraction and deceit. (If you’d like to help FIRE convince Bucknell to change course, you can write to President Brian Mitchell and others here.)

The vast gulf between the image of Bucknell, which explicitly prohibits “deliberate interference” with freedom of speech, and the far more repressive reality should disturb every American — especially because it is representative of all too many colleges in America today. FIRE’s Red Alert list of the “worst of the worst” colleges when it comes to liberty on campus contains some of America’s best-known institutions perpetrating serious injustices, and Bucknell may soon join the list if it continues to refuse to respect the promises of free speech it has made to its students.

For instance, Johns Hopkins University, known for its prestigious medical school, saw fit to punish an undergraduate for an insufficiently politically correct party invitation on Facebook. Brandeis University, named after one of America’s most important defenders of free speech, Justice Louis Brandeis, punished a professor of fifty years’ experience for saying the word “wetbacks” in his Latin American Politics class — in the context of criticizing it! And Michigan State labeled a student a “spammer” not for peddling discount “V1AGRA,” but for sending e-mails to selected faculty members about, of all things, changes to the academic calendar.

It’s a sure bet that the vast majority of Americans don’t think of infringements of liberty when they think of these schools. But maybe they should. When a local police department tramples on someone’s rights, it’s correctly considered news. There is far less outcry when Bucknell, or Johns Hopkins, or Michigan State decides that some students’ expression or ideas are worth less than others’. Yet the damage in the latter case may end up being more damaging to our society. College students — among them our future leaders — are being taught that freedom is to be distrusted, that authority may be arbitrary instead of lawful, and that some ideas are just too dangerous to express. If colleges succeed in convincing the majority of their students that these lessons are true, our nation is in great peril.

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Robert Shibley is the vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, PA.
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