Faced With Hateful Protest and Calls for Censorship, Indiana U. Admins Reaffirm Free Speech Rights
September 6, 2013
by Nico Perrino
There is little that will make a full-time free speech advocate prouder of his university than when the school comes out strongly in defense of free expression. Last week, in response to a protest by the campus’ registered chapter of the Traditionalist Youth Network (TYN), administrators at my alma mater, Indiana University (IU), did just that.
Though reports from my old stomping ground maintain that the group’s protest outside of a local bookstore was hateful and offensive, IU Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs James Wimbush correctly noted that members of TYN have a right to publicly express themselves.
“This is a place where we allow for the diversity of thought, the diversity of opinion,” Wimbush told the Indiana Daily Student (IDS). “We don’t necessarily agree with what this particular group is spouting. But unless they violate the Code of Conduct, unless they violate the criteria of being a group, we do allow students to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
IU Dean of Students Harold “Pete” Goldsmith echoed Wimbush’s sentiment.
“I’m very sorry that people were offended by what was chalked or what was said,” Goldsmith told the IDS. “It’s not in the spirit of what we’re trying to create, but I also have to defend the ability of people to say things that I may not personally agree with.”
This is not IU’s or the Bloomington, Indiana community’s first time confronting allegedly hateful speech. Last year, a speech by pastor Douglas Wilson drew protests and arrests in response to what some felt were homophobic and sexist messages. On another occasion a lone speaker held a Confederate Heritage Rally just off campus that ended with police helping him escape by squad car.
It’s important that administrators like Goldsmith and Wimbush continue to affirm the rights of students and student groups to express themselves. Following each of these instances of allegedly offensive or hateful speech taking place on or near IU’s campus, short-sighted students and community leaders called for censorship of the disapproved opinions. One student wrote an op-ed for the IDS arguing that allowing Wilson to speak on campus wasn’t “a choice between freedom of speech and censorship,” but instead a choice between “hate and love.” Similarly, one commentator on the story about TYN’s protest asked “why student money should go to their group.” Another said “they do not have the right to be officially recognized by Indiana University.”
To be clear, TYN does have a right to be recognized by IU. As the Supreme Court held in Board of Regents v. Southworth (2000), “When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others.” As long as it complies with all other requirements of being an officially recognized student group, TYN may not lawfully be rejected or punished by the university on the basis of its views.
But I call these student demands for censorship short-sighted not because the censorship might open up the university to legal liabilities—although it could—but because the precedents set by censorship have a way of backfiring.
At the University of of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a speech code that regulated “disruptive and intimidating behavior” ended up landing the school on the receiving end of a federal complaint with the Department of Education for retaliation. The school used the troublesome code against Landen Gambill, a student engaged in sexual assault activism on campus.
Prior to the complaint, the school’s vice chancellor of student affairs said that he was comfortable with the policy and that it was appropriate because it addressed “actions that make it difficult for people to access education.” But when well-intentioned policies are so broadly written that they allow for the punishment of protected speech, colleges run the risk that the policy will not serve its intended purpose, as was ultimately the case at UNC.
If IU were to heed the calls from some students and shed TYN of their recognition as a student group, they would set a precedent that might one day extend back to those very students. Sure, censorship might today seem expedient to rid the campus of some widely disfavored speech. But what happens tomorrow when those students once willing to censor now hold a disfavored opinion? As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has written, “We are all blasphemers”—“every single person reading this has a belief that in some part of the world or at some point in history could've gotten you arrested, beheaded, or burned at the stake.”
Similarly, there’s a brilliant scene from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” when the Thomas More character confronts a prospective son-in-law who would pursue heretics at whatever costs. More explains that laws provide us protection—they are broad trees that keep us safe from the elements. To cut the trees down to get after some perceived evil would only leave us exposed when the winds blew strong.
“I give the devil benefit of law,” said More, “for my own safety’s sake.”
As my experience at IU can attest, there are many students who come out strongly in favor of free speech. But there are those at IU—and just about everywhere else, for that matter—that will take the short-sighted, seemingly expedient route and seek the censorship of unwanted opinions. In those cases, it’s important to have administrators like Goldsmith and Wimbush who will come out strongly in defense of the free and open expression of ideas on campus.
Now, if IU would just fix its “yellow light” policies to become Indiana’s first “green light” institution...