From the late 1980s until the late 2000s, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda had a gruesome way of dealing with people whose ideas it deemed “offensive.” Militants would puncture holes in the lips of these dissidents and feed metal padlocks through their mouths. While such violence is a far cry from the censorship going on around college campuses, it is an example to where the road of moral authoritarianism leads.
Across the nation, campuses have become bastions for constraints on free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Washington D.C.-based civil liberties group, surveyed 440 schools in 2015. The nonprofit rates colleges and universities – public and private – using a traffic light rating: green for policies that “do not seriously imperil speech,” yellow for policies that could “too easily be used to restrict protected expression,” and red, which “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Of the universities surveyed, FIRE awarded only 22 schools, or roughly 5 percent, a green-light rating; 49 percent received a red light rating.
Azhar Majeed, director of policy reform at FIRE, said the problem has worsened over the past decade. Ironically, he said many of the administrators restricting free speech are of the generation that fought so hard in the 1960s and 70s to loosen conservatives’ stranglehold on campus dialogue. Now that those administrators have authority, they are committing the same transgressions they accused their predecessors of perpetrating. In another twist of irony, he added that most of the squashing of speech is done under the banner of protecting “diversity.”
“Universities, through their leadership are ensuring that students will not encounter ideas that they find loathsome or offensive,” Majeed said. “They expect to go through their four years of college, or however many years of college, to never encounter anything that offends. [Students expect] to be shielded or coddled.”
However, Majeed said “diversity,” “hate speech” and “harassment” have become little more than euphemisms for censorship, and limiting speech in such ways does a disservice to students of all ideologies. A big part of the problem is that students often decry limits on free speech for someone with whom they agree, but rarely stick up for the rights of others, creating a “free speech for me but not for thee” atmosphere, he said.
This atmosphere, he said, creates a “race to the bottom” for offense. Often, universities weaponize obtuse policies to simply punish on the basis of topic instead of content. He used Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis as an example. Kipnis was subject to an investigation to determine if she had violated Title IX – the legislation that is supposed to ensure gender equality in federally funded programs – after writing an essay about how the law is abused.
“It doesn’t even really matter what you say if you are talking about the wrong thing on campus,” Majeed said. “If you take a contrarian viewpoint and don’t go with the campus’ orthodox viewpoint, you are really sticking your neck out there.”
As a private Jesuit university, Santa Clara University it is not bound by the First Amendment when it comes to free speech, but it does enjoy the religious freedom provided by it.
But many private universities break promises to potential students, Majeed said, by saying students will be able to exercise their First Amendment rights on campus only to have policies that allow the university to be the arbitrator of expression.
For instance, SCU, like most universities, has the Orwellian-sounding “free speech” zones – places where students, if they are to conduct demonstrations, rallies, vigils or other so-called “expressive activities,” must confine themselves. These zones are the antithesis of free; instead, they are some of the most restricted areas in regards to free speech in the entire country.
Students looking to host an event deemed “expressive activity” must submit a proposal to the administration asking for permission three days in advance. The student handbook, university policies and website offer little guidance as to how administrators decide what to allow, doing little more than iterating that SCU is a community “informed by Catholic principles.”.
The university justifies these restrictions under a “time, place, manner” restrictions, saying such zones are necessary to, ironically, “guarantee the right of free expression” and essentially not disturb its function as an academic institution.
Will Gonzales is a first year law student. Having done his undergraduate studies at the University of San Diego, another private Catholic school, he is no stranger to such policies. He said during his orientation at SCU, university officials gave him the impression his freedom of speech would be honored.
“Having to ask permission is not freedom of speech,” he said. “It does worry me … I was not prepared for it.”
While the university policies claim “the university recognizes and supports the rights of free expression,” those policies are written so that speech the administrators deem “disorderly, lewd, indecent, or obscene” or simply using “degrading language” can have serious consequences for students, including expulsion. Policy also specifies that the administration has the right to “limit or restrict the on-campus activity of any student organization, registered or unregistered, or any individual whose purposes are directly contrary to the institution’s stated mission and purpose and its Catholic, Jesuit character.”
Several calls and emails to Santa Clara Communications Director Deepa Arora and Deborah Lohse, media relations assistant, requesting interviews with school officials to clarify these policies including what constitutes “degrading language” or “disorderly, lewd, indecent or obscene” speech went unfulfilled.
Not A New Problem
Last year, these policies collided with a groundswell of students holding differing opinions than those sanctioned by SCU. While Majeed said FIRE’s work shows that censorship on campuses predominately comes from the left, SCU’s problem with free speech stems from the school’s conservative-leaning Catholic ethos – not a leftist cultural Marxism.
Isaac Nieblas, director of SCU’s multicultural center, said the university took issue with how his group advertised a vigil highlighting police brutality, essentially coercing his group into disassociating with Black Lives Matter, which opposes police brutality specifically, and using the more broad slogan “All Lives Matter.”
“Our university has lacked complete social awareness,” he said. “I felt a numbness where I was unable to speak my mind, especially in the classroom. I love the philosophy that is put on the [university’s] brochure, but that is not the way it plays out,” Nieblas said. “If we have to jump through all these hoops and ladders, what is free speech?”
Jeanne Rosenberger, vice provost for student life and dean of students, told the campus newspaper, The Santa Clara, “If the current policy is problematic, I am open to revisiting it.” In that article Rosenberger claimed maintaining the school’s Catholic identity in the face of controversial topics not in line with its ideals is a complex process.
That article was published online in February 2015, but the university’s policies on free speech remain very restrictive.
Still, few people would suggest that SCU is not within its rights to decide what kind of dialogue its administrators want to allow on campus. After all, freedom of religion is also enshrined in the First Amendment. In fact, no one interviewed for this story disputed the rights of SCU administrators to make those decisions.
However, policies that are vague, hyper-restrictive or amount to Newspeak go against what Majeed calls a “quasi-contract” between the university and the student: a clear message about what the prospective student is getting when they sign up to be attend SCU.
“If you hold yourself out as a marketplace of ideas, we will hold you to that commitment,” he said. “A vast majority of private universities claim they are an institution that respects free speech.”
Sophie Mattson, 20, chief editor at The Santa Clara, said the university’s primary concern seems to be maintaining its Catholic image, specifically trying to disassociate itself with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. As an example, she pointed to the campus drag show and how the university barred audience members from taking photos at the show or promoting it on Facebook.
Although SCU has made some strides in recent years, such as holding Mass for LGBT students and doing away with the media restrictions on the drag show, she said it still tries to suppress ideas, specifically from the LGBT community.
It isn’t just the way the university controls which opinions students can hear, Mattson said. Sometimes it attempts to suppress facts that are relevant to the student life. Even though The Santa Clara’s registered student organization manual specifies that the paper enjoys free speech rights, the university provides The Santa Clara with a large portion of its funding. Mattson said she suspects the university cut her staff’s access to university sources after the paper criticized the administration.
“They want to have their crisp green lawns and their palm trees,” she said. “I do think the university tries to hide certain things because they want to maintain their image,” adding, “They don’t want anything that could detract from donors giving them checks.”
The university swept issues of campus robberies and a swell in campus suicide rates – a result, one writer for the student newspaper opined, had something to do with student health center staff being overworked – under the rug, she said.
The Future of Free Speech on Campus
Regan Bradley-Brown, 25, is a second-year law student. Although she categorized SCU’s free speech regulations as “not horrible,” she is also passionate about sexual and reproductive health – a topic on which SCU’s administration does not allow open debate, she said.
As a graduate student, she said the longer she attends SCU, the more disillusioned by the university’s lack of transparency she has become. The problem she has, she said, is the university wanting to have it both ways – saying it respects different worldviews but wanting to censor ideas that don’t fit the mold of ‘Catholic values.’
“If you are going to say ‘diversity,’ say diversity is X,Y,Z,” she said. “To say that without defining it is disingenuous. It’s not diverse. It’s problematic. It trains people that the whole world thinks like them.”
Former SCU Student Body President Aaron Poor originally agreed to be interviewed for this story but said he needed to first “get permission” from his student advisor. He later reneged after learning the interview would not be via email, citing the discussion with that advisor.
Lidia Diaz-Fong, SCU’s new student body president, was less reticent. She said she is not concerned about the policies, pointing to the university’s right to limit free speech if it “collides with Jesuit values.”
She said she doesn’t see the policies allowing the administration to control the conversation on campus as problematic because the administration remains open to differing ideas and isn’t concerned with pushing its values. She is also not concerned that university control skews the information she gets from her constituents, she added.
“As an elected official, as student body president, students have a lot of different channels of voicing their opinions. If they want me to advocate for something, they are more than welcome to come speak to me. I don’t think it hinders their voice when it comes to the actions that a student government can take on campus,” she said. “In my experience, I haven’t seen that happen. I feel the university is very accommodating. The university tries very hard to be an open place of discourse.”
Diaz-Fong said the student senate is looking at reducing the three-day approval period for “expressive activities,” saying it is “a little conservative.” If something happens on the national stage, asking students to wait three days to express themselves in response to it can cause their passion to “die down.”
She also admitted that, if the university is censoring students in ways to which she is not privy, it creates an information bias and that she can’t say with “any confidence” that the policies are not stifling students’ voices.
Diaz-Fong said while she sees the policies as “limiting,” she does not see them as “problematic,” saying that calling something “problematic” implies it is making students unhappy. And while some students are unhappy with SCU’s policies, it is not the overall trend, she said. However, if “a big enough” portion of the student population wanted the policies revised, they would have to be revised, she added.
“If the administration was truly more limiting, it would be a bigger issue,” she said.
Still, Diaz-Fong was also quick to point out that although she sits on several boards and administrative committees representing the interests of SCU students, neither she nor the student senate “have the power” to change the policies. She said the scope of student government is “limited to concrete actions” it can take.
Mattson disagrees that the policies are not problematic. She said when administrators muzzle students with certain ideologies, it doesn’t eliminate those ideas. It simply pushes them out of the spotlight, which is troubling.
“[By] not allowing people to protest freely, it allows a lot to fester under the surface,” Mattson said. “It makes people feel frustrated, and it makes people feel like they don’t have a voice.”
Perhaps the outlook is not as bleak as it might seem, however.
According to FIRE’s website, over the past few years, the number of green-light-rated schools has been growing, and the number of red-light-rated schools has been dwindling, hitting below 50 percent for the first time ever. Since 2007, the percent of green-light-rated schools has risen from 2 to 5 percent while the percent of red-light-rated schools has fallen from 75 to 49 percent – bad news for moral authoritarians.