Double Standard at Claremont Colleges
April 25, 2008
Over the past few months, FIRE has been notified of several challenges to free expression at The Claremont University Consortium—a group of five undergraduate colleges and two graduate schools in California. In early February, Scripps College Dean of Students Debra Wood sent an e-mail to all Scripps students in response to flyers posted on campus for a "White Party," where attendees were encouraged to wear white clothing. Photos on the advertisements included scantily clad African-American women. Wood's e-mail claimed that the flyers harmed "not only women and African Americans, but all of us here at the colleges and undermines our educational efforts." She urged other campuses "to take a similar stand against racism and sexism" by "refusing to tolerate this kind of treatment of members of our communities."
Then, a week later, Harvey Mudd College Dean of Students Jeanne Noda e-mailed all students to note that someone had written "Hillary is a foxy lesbian" on a whiteboard. According to Noda,
It seems that the student residents wrote this message as part of a joke, without thinking about the impact it might have on others. It refers to a prominent public figure. The message has been erased. Campus Safety has been notified.
Finally, in March, Scripps College Associate Dean of Students Staci Buchwald e-mailed all students, noting that "a person wrote a cultural epithet and offensive drawing on the write and wipe board of a student's room." Buchwald asked students to provide information about the "perpetrator."
After these three incidents, FIRE wrote a letter to Robert A. Walton, CEO of The Claremont University Consortium, questioning the efforts by Claremont administrators to censor speech and reminding him that the e-mails sent to all students—which included references to notifying campus safety and to taking "appropriate action"—were likely to have a chilling effect on speech at the five colleges. FIRE also reminded him that free speech is protected at all public and private (but not religious) colleges in California by the state's Leonard Law.
FIRE never heard back from Walton or anyone at the Claremont Colleges, but the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, a local newspaper, wrote an article on FIRE's letter. The article included a quotation from Claremont University Consortium spokeswoman Barbara Jefferson:
FIRE has threatened with litigation. We have no comment.
We're not sure where Jefferson got that idea, since FIRE does not litigate and never has. We do have a Legal Network and will sometimes refer cases to attorneys who share our value of free expression, but such a move was not contemplated here, and there's no way they could have read our letter to indicate that it was.
Now, FIRE has learned that about a week ago, another flyer was posted around the campus of Pomona College, another of the Claremont Colleges, advertising a "Black Out Party." This ad also features photos of scantily clad African-American women. As of today, there is no word on whether or not Pomona administrators will send around an e-mail criticizing this flyer, but if they don't, it's an obvious display of a double standard that FIRE and the students of the Claremont Colleges should not tolerate.