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My alma mater disappoints again:
Student rights are under assault at Bucknell University, where a conservative student group’s protests against affirmative action policies and President Obama’s stimulus plan have repeatedly been shut down or forbidden by administrators using flimsy or patently false excuses. After the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC) had three events censored in two months, the students turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Bucknell promises free speech, but it delivers selective censorship,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Bucknell administrators have gone out of their way to abuse and even invent policies in attempts to silence these students, all the while professing to respect free speech.”
Bucknell’s recent forays into censorship began on March 17, 2009, when BUCC members stood at Bucknell’s student center and passed out fake dollar bills with President Obama’s face on the front and the sentence “Obama’s stimulus plan makes your money as worthless as monopoly money” on the back. One hour into this symbolic protest, Bucknell administrator Judith L. Mickanis approached the students and told them that they were “busted,” that they were “soliciting” without prior approval, and that their activity was equivalent to handing out Bibles.
The students protested, but despite the fact that Bucknell’s solicitation policy explicitly covers only sales and fundraising materials, Mickanis insisted via e-mail that prior permission was needed to pass out any materials—”anything from Bibles to other matter.”
“Distributing protest literature is an American free-speech tradition that dates to before the founding of the United States,” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “And why is Bucknell so afraid of students handing out ‘Bibles [or] other matter’ that might provide challenging perspectives? Colleges are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, but Bucknell is betraying this ideal.”
Bucknell’s misguided crusade against free expression continued on April 7, when administrators shut down BUCC’s “affirmative action bake sale” protest. Affirmative action bake sales are a widely used form of satirical protest against affirmative action policies that treat people of different races differently. Organizers typically display suggested pricing in which African-American and Hispanic students are asked to pay lower prices than Asian and white students for the same items. The protests are thus intended to satirize and spark debate about affirmative action policies, not to raise revenue.
A video recording shows that an hour into BUCC’s protest, Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford arrived and informed the students that he had the “opportunity” to shut down the sale because the prices they were charging were different (lower) than what they had listed on their event application. The students offered to change the prices on the spot, but Commerford refused and insisted that they close the event immediately and file another application for a later date.
Accordingly, BUCC members filed an application to hold the same event two weeks later, but were then told that they would have to obtain the permission of the Dean of Students to hold a “controversial” event. No such permission is required by Bucknell policy. When the students nevertheless attempted to get this special permission, Commerford rejected the request. In a recorded conversation, Commerford said that such a bake sale would violate Bucknell’s nondiscrimination policy, even with satirical recommended (not actual) pricing, and that the only event he would approve on the topic would be a debate in a different forum altogether. This novel restriction also does not exist among Bucknell’s official policies.
What’s odd about Bucknell’s non-discrimination claim is that, by definition, affirmative action discriminates based on race. Bucknell clearly believes it is acceptable to discriminate sometimes, because they do it when deciding who to admit to the school.
So by Bucknell’s Orwellian logic, discrimination is not allowed unless they’re the ones doing it. Discrimination with real-world consequences (where you go to college, for example, or whether you get that job), that’s acceptable to Bucknell, but the tongue-in-cheek “discrimination” of an affirmative action bake sale (which is meant to mock real-world discrimination, not increase it)... well, we simply can’t have that!
The school’s latest assault on free speech prompted me to write an e-mail to Bucknell’s president. I copied the alumni office, the office of the general counsel, the affirmative action office, and Dean Gerald Commerford, who shut down the bake sale:
From: Evan Coyne Maloney
To: President Brian Mitchell
Subject: Concerned about the recent FIRE report on Bucknell
Date: Thu, 11 Jun 2009 12:23:16 -0400
Cc: Dean Gerald W. Commerford, Bucknell Alumni Relations, General Counsel Wayne A. Bromfield, Affirmative Action Officer Linda L. Bennett
As a Bucknell alumnus deeply concerned about free speech issues at my alma mater, I was disturbed by this report issued earlier today by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:
When you began your term, President Mitchell, you made some supportive statements on free speech and indicated that your administration would be more respectful of different views than previous Bucknell administrations.
Your seeming commitment to free speech put me and a number of other alumni at ease. That’s why I was disappointed to hear that the school may be backsliding on your promises.
Of course, so far, I have only heard the facts as laid out by FIRE. Do you have any comments on the FIRE report that would shed a little more light on this? I know I’m not the only alumnus who will want some answers.
We’ll be closely watching how the university responds to this. I’m hopeful that the university will reaffirm your previously-stated commitments to free speech and free thought.
Evan Coyne Maloney
Class of 1994
Although I haven’t heard back from Bucknell directly, several hours after my e-mail, one of the recipients—Bucknell’s general counsel Wayne A. Bromfield—issued a statement [PDF] changing the university’s original story. (FIRE has already poked holes in Bucknell’s latest story.)
Unfortunately, it is clear from Bromfield’s statement that Bucknell still has no plans to reverse their effective ban on free speech.
Full Disclosure: Before releasing Indoctrinate U, I visited Bucknell to screen my earlier film, Brainwashing 101. The group that invited me was same BUCC from the story above. With the group’s permission, I was taping the screening of Brainwashing 101 after I was tipped off that the event would be disrupted (fortunately, it wasn’t).
But because the school didn’t want any bad publicity if my screening was disrupted, instead of trying to prevent the threatened disruption, the head of security was sent to threaten me with arrest—in front of the entire audience, no less—if I continued filming the screening of my own film. (I continued filming anyway, and Bucknell’s threat turned out to be empty.)