Media CenterDampening Free Expression: Private Colleges Hope New Speech Policies Will Keep the Peace

Dampening Free Expression: Private Colleges Hope New Speech Policies Will Keep the Peace

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at how private colleges have been navigating immense pressure and have revised or created new policies about speech and protest. Sigal Ben-Porath, SNF Paideia Program Faculty Director, and MRMJJ Presidential Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education, speaks about the challenges administrators face in keeping students mentally and physically safe. For administrators, Dr. Ben-Porath says “the question is, ‘Can you be inclusive and avoid harmful, bigoted, or similar, perspectives while still having an atmosphere of open inquiry?’”

Title of article with illustration below showing the lower portion of a man's face in a deep monochrome pink color with a white zipper on his lips
Illustration by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Following months of demonstrations and turmoil, American University adopted a new set of policies for the spring semester. As of January 25, all protests inside university buildings are banned. Posters or signs on university property must be “welcoming and build community.” And student organizations need to be open to all students.

American’s regulations — which the administration casts less as wholly new policies than as enforcing existing ones — were among several changes from the university that were intended to respond to alleged reports of antisemitism on campus. They came a week after two Jewish advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that included reports of swastikas drawn on dorm doors and videos of students ripping down and defacing posters about Israeli hostages.

The new policies, which are in effect for only the spring semester, are an attempt to strike a balance between protecting students and allowing for expression and protest on campus, said Matthew D. Bennett, a university spokesman. Administrators will solicit feedback on the rules’ effectiveness and may adapt or maintain them, he said.

American is one of several private colleges that has been navigating immense pressure amid the Israel-Hamas war and has revised or created new policies about speech and protest since the beginning of the year. The new rules are the next salvo in a years-long cycle, in which tensions rise on campus, begetting new rules that seem tailored to respond to it. Eventually, these rules are broken or disregarded only to spark a new series of restrictions. For example, American adopted its new rules on posters in January, which permit only those that promote events and include logistical details or the purpose of the event and the group sponsoring it. The university previously adopted a policy on this subject in November, when it put in place a rule against tearing down or defacing posters after reports that those depicting Israeli hostages had been ripped down.

Many of the policy changes have the stated aim of protecting both free expression and student safety, and they do so in ways that are both sweeping and specific. But as administrators continue to punish students and cancel protests, experts are concerned that the rules are really part of a larger push to limit speech on campuses in response to an uncommonly divisive controversy roiling many colleges.

Unlike public colleges, private institutions are not bound by the First Amendment. They are allowed to impose restrictions on the content of speech as well as where and when protests can happen. While most private colleges try to avoid being too restrictive or targeting specific viewpoints, free-speech advocates worry administrators may apply the new wave of changes unevenly. Especially with contentious issues, like the conflict in the Middle East, colleges often attempt to keep the peace rather than foster important conversation, said Brian Soucek, a law professor at the University of California at Davis.

“It’s common that when faced with controversies, universities and other institutions will default to order over expression. It’s just easier. It’s less costly for them,” Soucek said. “It really takes some commitment to decide no, we’re going to stand by our First Amendment principles even when they mean that campus will be a little more unruly and disruptive than we’re used to.”

A Bureaucratic Approach

Like American’s policies, many of the recent changes at colleges seem to be in reaction to turmoil or complaints of antisemitism on campus. They take aim at specific manifestations of speech and protest; some of them target spontaneous events, regulating where and when they can occur, and require prior approval for large crowds.

Under Cornell University’s interim Expressive Activity Policy, for example, unapproved amplified sound is limited to one hour in two areas of its campus. Registration is required for outdoor camping and events that exceed 50 people in several locations. While the university began reviewing its speech policies in early 2023, this academic year has “underscored” their importance, according to a campuswide email announcing the policy.

At Harvard University, protests are prohibited in classrooms, libraries, dormitories, residence halls, dining halls, offices, and places where they “would interfere with the normal activities of the university.” The new guidance, released in January, is an interpretation of policies that the university adopted in 1970, according to a campuswide statement. Harvard is one of several institutions under investigation by the Department of Education for allegedly failing to adequately respond to antisemitic harassment.

Other colleges’ policies limit where signs or posters can be hung on university property as well as what they’re allowed to say.

Posters at Lehigh University, for instance, can only communicate information about campus events, activities, and other information related to the campus community. They’re also prohibited in a number of areas, including on painted, finished, or wallpapered surfaces, windows, doors, the exterior of buildings, utility poles, trees, car windshields, or on bulletin boards reserved for departmental use.

At Franklin & Marshall College, a committee made up of students, faculty, and staff is drafting policies to regulate the college’s “protest tree,” where students often hang signs regarding local or global issues. The college began considering new policies after students reported their posters being removed last semester, said Daniel Maloof, a junior at the college and member of the committee. If passed, they would be the first policies for the tree, he said. .

In the meantime, the college’s student government proposed a list of interim guidelines last month. According to the regulations, which the college has not officially adopted, “hate speech” and speech that demeans others on the basis of their identity are prohibited, and signs can’t name or threaten individual members of the campus community. No one can deface or remove any sign that is in compliance with the regulations.

At Barnard College, the posting policies cover online content as well. In November, the college announced that political messages are prohibited on department websites, and it banned the use of college resources for political activity. The decision came after a group of faculty members posted a message supporting Palestinians on their department’s website.

Barnard websites are “not places for political speech, which runs the risk of marginalizing those who may disagree,” a spokesperson from the college said. The college has also mandated that students remove any items hung on their dorm or suite doors. In December, students faced disciplinary proceedings for allegedly hanging a pro-Palestinian banner outside a window on the college’s quad, the Columbia Spectator reported.

Some colleges have already imposed consequences based on the new policies. Administrators at Barnard have placed at least 19 students who participated in a December protest under disciplinary proceedings, according to reporting from theSpectator. Some of the students violated the college’s Campus Events and Approval Policy, the Spectator reported, which went into effect the previous month and states that students book events that require security or fall outside of “general member meetings” at least 28 days in advance.

Students at Cornell were referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards for allegedly violating the Expressive Activity Policy when, earlier this month, about 100 students walked out of class and gathered in a campus library. They read the names of Palestinians who have died in the war and led chants. The students had violated policy, a university official said, that requires protesters to plan their demonstrations “wisely to avoid disrupting classrooms, libraries, auditoriums, laboratories, living units, administrative offices, and special-event venues.”

Speech and expression regulations “provide guidance on how to be in community with people who do not share the views, politics, or ideology being put forth by others,” a spokesperson from the university said. “Cornell’s policy builds on decades of reasonable guidelines and continues to support a range of expressive activity, which is the hallmark of a vibrant academic community.”

“It’s common that when faced with controversies, universities and other institutions will default to order over expression. It’s just easier.”

Balancing Safety and Speech

Colleges have long tried to balance the protection of students’ mental and physical safety with their right to free speech. Early on, administrators saw their job as guiding students’ morals and values. Colleges had gendered dorms, curfews, and restrictions on student speech. Sometimes organizations with controversial views were banned from demonstrating or speaking on campus, said Henry Reichman, former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Through student protests in the 1960s, free speech became more of a priority. Students pushed for the right to express themselves as the Civil Rights movement and demonstrations against the Vietnam War raged.

More recently, though, safety has taken precedence, often with an expansive definition of what constitutes harm. The debate has also morphed as it alternates party lines. Liberal and conservative politicians tend to advocate for colleges to quell speech that doesn’t align with their values, but they allow for speech that does, said Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. For administrators, this makes keeping students mentally and physically safe increasingly complicated.

Over the past few years, as students and faculty members push to make campuses more welcoming, some colleges have imposed regulations to prevent speech that targets students with marginalized identities, through vehicles like trigger warnings. Other colleges barred potentially dangerous speakers from coming to campus. The moves have brought resistance from mostly Republican lawmakers, who argue that colleges have been too quick to cater to liberal views. But these policymakers, in turn, have also championed laws that target “divisive concepts,” like structural racism, that might cause certain students to feel anguish. And some are now calling for colleges to impose more restrictions on speech and expression in the name of safety for Jewish students.

Though the new policies seem to be just another wave in a long line of regulations, said Ben-Porath, colleges have always struggled to manage conversations about conflicts in the Middle East. Since the topic is so contentious and emotionally charged, administrators are grappling with what speech is permissible, she said. Ben-Porath worries that colleges may enforce the policies in a way that limits speech for some groups and allows it for others. This makes it harder for students to both express themselves and listen to other perspectives, she said.”

For administrators, “the question is, ‘Can you be inclusive and avoid harmful, bigoted, or similar, perspectives while still having an atmosphere of open inquiry?’” Ben-Porath said. “Can you be welcoming to all people, including those that hold perspectives that would exclude some other people?”

Read full article here.

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