Of all the rights covered by the First Amendment, the right to distribute political literature is one of the most important. Indeed, without the efforts of pamphleteers like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, America as we know it might not have come into existence at all. These men risked everything to spread the ideas in which they believed — and as a result, our nation has a tradition in law and custom of protecting pamphleteers.
That is, unless you are on a college campus.
Take a recent incident at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month last October, Sinclair student Ethel Borel-Donohue waited until after her Probate Law I class was over (she is training to become a paralegal) to pass out around 15 flyers that discussed studies linking birth control and abortion to breast cancer.
Unfortunately, the climate for free speech on many campuses being what it is, you can imagine what happened next. According to Borel-Donohue, she was called before the chair of her program, county domestic relations judge Michael Brigner, and told that her flyers had offended someone in the class who had an abortion and that Borel-Donohue had no right to pass out any materials in the classroom, notwithstanding the fact that class was over. (I should note that when Borel-Donohue e-mailed Judge Brigner to confirm what he said in their conversation, he refused to do so — always a bad sign.)
If anything, Brigner was understating the power over expression that Sinclair Community College has unlawfully arrogated to itself. Its student code of conduct actually bans all distribution of literature at Sinclair except for “recognized student organizations after registering with the appropriate college official.” That’s right: you need the permission of school authorities to pass out pamphlets at Sinclair, and even that “privilege” is reserved only for groups who are “recognized” under the school’s rules.
There is simply no possible justification for a public college in the United States to ban all distribution of “unapproved” literature, everywhere on campus. And it’s hard to think of a reason that passing out literature in a classroom after class would be disruptive enough to justify a ban. After all, at most colleges, classrooms not in use for instruction are used for a variety of meetings and activities, and nobody is forced to stay around to receive the literature. Yet Sinclair has defiantly stood by its policies.
A similar controversy recently took place at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where literature comparing the abortion rate in the African-American community to genocide sparked outrage among students, calls for punishment, and a declaration from the seminary’s dean of student life that from now on, literature could no longer be distributed without administrative approval.
In this case, objecting students and administrators claimed that the pamphlets were racist. One was quoted as saying,
There was a lot of devastation for me, psychological damage, injury, because I saw this as social bullying. People need to understand that racism is not dead.
And according to the same article,
A statement from the seminary said it “does not tolerate racial discrimination” and “has policies that both protect freedom of speech and preclude racial harassment of any kind.”
Those claiming to be offended focused on the use of imagery and symbolism in the pamphlets — a picture of a noose and a mention of the Ku Klux Klan among them. But it appears that in the rush to condemn the pamphlets and those who distributed them for being racist, few actually took the time to read the pamphlets. Indeed, the article featuring the noose illustration concludes: “Abortion and population control have taken a devastating toll on the African-American community.” How do I know this? I found the article online, along with the entire 12-page pamphlet, which opens with an introduction from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, Dr. Alveda King.
Whether or not you agree with the message of or studies cited in the pamphlet, it does not appear to be driven by animus towards blacks. Is it too much to ask of wannabe censors — including the administration of Princeton Seminary — to actually read what they wish to censor and not just look at the pictures?
Of course, I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. Since anyone with a modicum of sense would realize from reading even a short excerpt that the pamphlet was not intended as a racist screed against African-Americans, we are left with the conclusion that the real problem that Princeton Seminary’s administration and students had with the pamphlet was its controversial views about abortion.
The same is true at Sinclair Community College: the problem was not that Borel-Donohue saw fit to pass out literature on campus, it was that she chose to pass out the wrong kind of literature. And while Princeton Seminary, as a private religious institution, is free to embarrass itself by pretending that a controversy about abortion is really a controversy about race, the students and taxpayers of Ohio who financially support Sinclair Community College have a legal right to expect better from their institution.
Americans have the right to demand and get basic honesty and integrity from our institutions of higher education. Public universities must be made to follow the First Amendment and allow dissenting ideas; private institutions must be held morally accountable to their own values, which rarely include institutional dishonesty about the motives of their own students. Much has been made of a possible “higher education bubble” recently. With incidents like this, is it any wonder if Americans are starting to wonder if college is really worth it?