Monday, December 03, 2007

Suppressing a Free Press at Quinnipiac

At Quinnipiac University, the editor of the student newspaper has been ordered not to criticize the administration's policy banning the newspaper from posting any articles online before publication.

The Quinnipiac dispute is something much bigger than just some misguided administrator, though. This isn’t some renegade dean; it’s apparently the official policy of the university that “student leaders, especially those in paid positions, are expected to generally be supportive of university policies.” This affects more than just students; one assumes that faculty, as paid employees, are also expected to obey the administration without public dissent. This is a dramatic threat to academic freedom, and it goes to show that freedom of the student press, when abridged, signals a far greater suppression of free thought on a campus.

One commenter at suggested that this isn't really the policy of the university. That depends on what you mean by a “policy.” I examined the Quinnipiac student handbook, and its speech code is actually pretty good. There are a few odd things: for student groups, “scavenger hunts” are defined as a form of hazing, and the student code prohibits “excessive legalism.” The code has the usual excessively vague bans on “verbal abuse” and causing “mental distress,” and it has an odd prohibition on sending “frivolous” messages via email. But overall, this is a pretty well-written speech code.

Yet, this campus felt free to ban the newspaper from posting stories on the internet and then threatening the editor with firing merely for criticizing the administration’s policies. Since this extraordinary abuse of student rights was made by a vice president and dean of students, and confirmed by an official university spokesperson, I think it is appropriate to call it the “official policy” of the university even though there is no formal written policy

What does this teach us? First, universities can restrict free speech even when they don’t have repressive speech codes. Second, universities need to adopt explicit statements of student rights modeled on the AAUP statement of student rights (and not the “Academic Bill of Rights,” which protects no student free speech or due process rights). Third, we need to do a better job of educating administrators about the importance of academic freedom and free speech on campus.

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