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Free speech at private universities
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Screenshot from YouTube)

Contending for free speech at private universities

When administrators aren’t required to abide by the First Amendment, can students still speak up?

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is no Berkeley-on-the-Hudson: Nothing burned during a student protest outside an October black-tie fundraiser hosted by school President Shirley Ann Jackson. But the protest and the ensuing disciplinary charges against two students at the Troy, N.Y., school highlights the lack of constitutional accountability at private institutions, including Christian colleges.

Attempts by school administrators and protesters to shut down debates and shout down invited speakers on college campuses across the country in recent months illustrate the tenuous grasp too many have on First Amendment principles. Public university policies must adhere to the U.S. Constitution, but private colleges are bound only by the free speech guidelines they codify in their student handbooks.

“Free speech liberties don’t apply, by default, on a private campus,” Adam B. Steinbaugh with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) told me. “The Constitution, including the First Amendment, only restricts acts by the government. So, private organizations, like private colleges, don’t have to abide by it.”

That leaves private university students at the mercy of their school’s faithful application of free speech policies, which they are “legally and morally obliged to keep,” Steinbaugh said. So how do students demonstrate their disagreement with an administration that controls the means for expressing dissent?

At RPI, students have been locked in a yearslong fight with administrators over control of the Student Union. That battle came to a head this year as administrators clamped down on demonstrations and students defied efforts to silence public debate.

Throughout the conflict, Steinbaugh claims RPI acted contrary to its own policies. That inconsistency could give students legal grounds for a lawsuit, Steinbaugh warned in a Nov. 13 letter to RPI admonishing the school for its indiscriminate application of free speech codes.

RPI staff allegedly removed signs students had posted—in accordance with handbook guidelines—to promote “Save the Union,” an unofficial student organization fighting the school’s takeover of the student-operated facility. And twice this semester administrators denied applications to hold a “peaceful demonstration,” claiming it would disrupt the school’s operations, Steinbaugh said in the letter.

Students held the rallies anyway. During the second protest, on Oct. 13, students circumvented a barricade erected by the school to create a barrier between demonstrators and the building housing the president’s fundraising event.

“Save the Union” members and FIRE said RPI administrators used campus security video and local TV news coverage of the protest to target students who spoke out during the demonstration. Michael Gardner and Bryan Johns face disciplinary charges filed on Nov. 8 for trespassing and “failure to comply.” Administrators also charged Gardner with “operating a business” on campus because he distributed a letter in support of “Save the Union,” according to Steinbaugh.

RPI officials have not responded to FIRE’s latest letter calling for reform.

Students at Christian colleges have faced similar attempts to silence dissent, especially at student newspapers that try to cover topics administrators would rather not have publicized. In those cases, as at RPI, publicity and public pressure often provides the only recourse. But if a university promises free speech, students should hold administrators accountable, Steinbaugh said.

“So, when we write to a private institution, we explain how their conduct departs from their promise of freedom of expression, using First Amendment legal rulings as guidance,” he told me. “So, while RPI is a private institute, it has promised its students freedom of expression, then balked when the students used that freedom to criticize the administration.”

— by Bonnie Pritchett

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