Student Organization Website Temporarily Suspended by Administration
April 8, 2008
by Luke Sheahan
The website of the College Republicans at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was temporarily suspended last month after the group titled a blog post "The Arts Department – A Haven for Terrorists." The post was about artist-in-residence Wafaa Bilal's controversial work "The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi," a video game based on an al-Qaeda game where players try to kill President Bush. According to a letter from Dean of Students Mark Smith to the co-chairs of the student organization, the blog post was in violation of the
Rensselaer Electronic Citizenship Policy specifically Section 3.4 Freedom from harassment (pg. 3), Section 4.1 Common courtesy and respect for others (pg. 3), and Section 4.1.3 Harassment (pg. 4). In addition to alleged violations of the Electronic Citizenship Policy (GDA #17), other Grounds for Disciplinary Action may also prove relevant, specifically, GDA #2, 6 and 9 as stated in The Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities, 2006-2008 (pg. 8).
According to Dean Smith, the title "The Arts Department – A Haven for Terrorists" is "slanderous, blatantly untrue, and can be construed to endanger the health, safety and welfare of members of the Rensselaer community." Remember, this was for criticizing the above mentioned artist.
Hyperbolic speech is not only protected under the First Amendment, but is an expressive mechanism with a long and storied tradition in political conflict. A statement which is so clearly outrageous, like the assertion that an academic department is serving as a safe-haven for terrorists, is protected because it is clearly not a mechanism of defamation or slander but rather a means of bringing attention to a particular issue that the speaking party doesn't like. It is protected expression, pure and simple.
RPI recognizes this in its own policies. The Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities Article 1, Section B states, "The student is a citizen of the nation at large, and the Institute shall not impede or obstruct students in the exercise of their fundamental rights as citizens." The rights of Americans include the fundamental right to free expression enshrined in the First Amendment.
Article V, Section B 1, of the policy states,
Students and student groups shall be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately. They shall be free to support causes by orderly means, including peaceful assembly, which do not disrupt the normal operation of the Institute. Unless otherwise authorized, students and student groups speak only for themselves in their public expressions or demonstrations.
Being "free to support causes by orderly means" surely includes the titles of blog posts. The title of a blog post simply cannot be construed to "disrupt the normal operation of the Institute" no matter how much the RPI administration might say otherwise.