A predicted wave of retirements of tenured faculty is presenting colleges with opportunities and practical and programmatic concerns -- as well as legal considerations, according to a report released today by the American Council on Education.
SAN FRANCISCO — How far can colleges go to stop students who are threatening to commit suicide?
It’s a fundamental question for college and university officials who work in the fields of student affairs, counseling and mental health -- and for the lawyers who may have to deal with the aftermath, and sometimes see mental health issues as a minefield of potential litigation.
Imagine a college student returning to campus next fall and being greeted by a student government representative who asks her if she is devoutly religious or not. She answers “yes” and the representative responds, “I am sorry, the student government has decided that the separation of church and state means that, as state college, we have to be free of religious students. You may want to consider a religious college.” Next imagine this befuddled student taking her complaint to the president of the college and he says “Yes, I know the student government’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause is wrong and utterly violates the U.S. Constitution, but I don’t want to interfere with their autonomy. Besides this is a ‘teachable moment.’ If they eventually get this ‘no religious students on campus’ decision in front of me, however, I will veto it. In the meantime, have you considered a religious college?”
While I have seen abuses of the Establishment Clause almost as ridiculous as this in my career, I use the above example to illustrate the absurdity of a public college delegating students’ constitutional rights to the student government. In cases across the country, however, administrations have stood idly by while student governments pass rules and make decisions that flatly violate the Constitution. One recent case that demonstrates this phenomenon involves the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, where the student government passed a rule in March banning groups with a "particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint" from receiving student-fee funding.
This may not seem like a particularly big deal to some. What the students and many observers don’t seem to understand is that profound moral and constitutional principles are violated by this rule.
The case no one seems to have adequately explained to these students is the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case Board of Regents v. Southworth. In that case a group of students (also at the University of Wisconsin, in that case at Madison) objected to the mandatory student fee because much of the money -- money they were forced to pay in addition to their tuition -- went to support groups they fundamentally disagreed with. This is a serious civil liberties concern. As bad as it may be to tell citizens what they can’t say, it is far worse to tell them what they must say, and perhaps worse still to tell them they must directly fund groups that they fundamentally oppose. Why, for example, should pro-life students be forced to give money to pro-choice student groups, or gay students be forced to give money to groups that believe homosexuality is sinful?
The Supreme Court in Southworth, however, did not see this as forced support of other’s opinions as long as certain conditions were met. In this unanimous decision, Justice Kennedy argued that, while people should not be forced to directly subsidize speech they despise, the student-fee system was more akin to a subsidy of free speech for all students in general -- as long as the collected funds were distributed without regard to the viewpoint of the student groups. The decision was a kind of constitutional compromise: public colleges may collect mandatory student fees if, and only if, student groups of every opinion (or no opinion at all) could apply for funds on an equal basis. While colleges would have every right to set up “viewpoint-neutral” criteria for funding, like requiring a certain number of students to be a members before being recognized or only funding on-campus events, the fact that students or administrators did not like the message of particular student group could not be used to deny a group funding from the mandatory student-fee pool.
Other options are also open to public colleges under Southworth. Public colleges can, for example, eliminate student fee funding altogether, or they can designate its use for narrow content-neutral categories, like designating fees exclusively for intramural sports, or monthly social events. The analysis gets trickier if a college with mandatory student fees banned groups with formal ties to outside political groups like the College Republicans or the College Green Party.
In order to stand a chance of surviving a Southworth challenge, the college would likely have to ban funding for all groups associated with outside organizations (a tricky and difficult standard to administer, that would doubtless prevent many students from forming the groups they would prefer to form) but even doing that would not rule out the chance of a lawsuit. Anytime administrations, and, in particular, student governments are empowered to take the content of a group into consideration the possibility of such a standard being used against groups with unpopular viewpoints (and, thereby, violating Southworth) presents itself.
Unfortunately Southworth’s requirement of “viewpoint neutrality” is often badly misunderstood and the Eau Claire student government has turned the concept completely on its head. Over the past year the student government and some members of the student media have interpreted "viewpoint neutrality" as meaning that they could not fund student groups that had any particular viewpoint or "bias." As part of growing trend coming from both the left and the right to route out "bias" on campus, a ranking student representative was even quoted in Eau Claire’s student newspaper as saying, "We want to exclude any groups that would be religious in nature, political in nature or anything that would have a political agenda [from being funded through student segregated fees]."
This statement directly contradicts numerous binding Supreme Court cases, including Southworth and Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia, and flatly discriminates against both religious and secular viewpoints. Why didn’t the administration offer some guidance to the students? After all, the student government was publicly contemplating passing a rule that violated the U.S. Constitution for months.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wanted to know why the administration was allowing their students to flounder and then flout the Constitution so blatantly, so it wrote the president and the upper administration. In an April 6 letter, FIRE emphasized a point that should be clear to any high school civics class: "As a state institution, the university and its administrators should understand that UWEC has a non-delegable duty to ensure that the First Amendment rights of its students are protected, and that no federal, state, local, or university rule, policy, or regulation can trump the exercise of rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution ." FIRE received a belated reply from the general counsel that allegedly the policy was “not yet in effect” and was pending review by her office, which would guide the university to deal with the policy in compliance with Southworth .
While this gives some hope that the rule will eventually be overturned, during the previous fall the student government refused to recognize a student magazine called The Flip Side because of its "progressive bias." The new, highly unconstitutional, regulation passed on March 14, 2005. The students have been laboring under the viewpoint that strong points of view are bad for months now. What exactly is the administration waiting for?
In previous situations where student governments have attempted to limit the free speech rights of other students, like University of Oregon where the student government stripped a student magazine’s recognition for poking fun at a transgender student representative who asked to be referred to as “zi” or “hir” rather than gendered pronouns like “he” or “her,” administrators essentially argued that that they did not want to interfere with the autonomy of the student government. While respect for the democratic process is commendable under some circumstances, one of the basics of our democracy is that there are some rights we deem too important to vote away. That is the reason why we have a Bill of Rights. The importance of the autonomy of the Eau Claire student government does not exactly match in importance the protection of free speech principles.
Some of the students seem to genuinely misunderstand the law here, and due to this misunderstanding they are violating the U.S. Constitution. As soon as administrators found out about this debate they should have informed the students that their interpretation of “viewpoint neutrality” was not just wrong but unlawful. Instead they have allowed student groups and the student government to fight it out among themselves with no apparent effort by the administration to defend the groups that were faced with these unconstitutional criteria.
Meanwhile students write editorials interpreting Southworth to mean "student fees could only be used to fund content-neutral organizations." If this is one of those "teachable moments" that educators talk so much about, it has failed. It is time the Eau Claire administration — and other universities where student harbor similar misunderstandings — do their job and teach their students what "viewpoint neutrality" really means.
Greg Lukianoff is director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
In what may be the worst decision for college student rights in the history of the federal judiciary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit this week turned back the clock a half-century and reinstated the old discredited doctrines of in loco parentis and administrative authoritarianism.
In Hosty v. Carter, the Seventh Circuit ruled by a 7-4 majority that administrators at public colleges have total control over subsidized student newspapers. But the scope of the decision is breathtaking, since the reasoning of the case applies to any student organization receiving student fees. Student newspapers, speakers and even campus protests could now be subject to the whim of administrative approval.
The case seemed like an open-and-shut example of unconstitutional suppression of dissent. On November 1, 2000, Patricia A. Carter, dean of student affairs at Governors State University, in Chicago’s south suburbs, called the printer of the student newspaper, the Innovator, and demanded prior approval of everything in the paper, which had annoyed administrators with its criticism of the university. Prior restraint is a classic violation of freedom of the press, and the editors Jeni Porche and Margaret Hosty soon sued the university.
Student press groups were alarmed when the Illinois attorney general’s office argued that the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier should apply to college newspapers. The misguided Hazelwood decision has been an unmitigated disaster for high school journalists, and the possibility of extending it to college students is terrifying.
Terrifying, that is, for anyone who cares about freedom of the student press. But for the majority of the Seventh Circuit, Hazelwood was a legal opening for conservative judges who wanted to reach a predetermined result. If the majority opinion by Judge Frank Easterbrook had merely extended the censorship of Hazelwood to colleges, it would have been a principled decision; a terrible principle, but a principle nonetheless.
However, because Dean Carter’s action violated even the Hazelwood standard, these activist judges had to rewrite the Hazelwood precedent to justify the censorship of all student newspapers and activities. The judges had to eliminate Hazelwood’s restriction to curricular-based newspapers, and then had to eviscerate any constitutional protections for a “limited public forum” such as a newspaper. It took the judges 18 months from the time of oral arguments, and some convoluted reasoning, to achieve their goal.
The Hazelwood case declared that high schools could only censor student newspapers that were created as part of the curriculum. However, the majority decision in Hosty goes far beyond this, expanding censorship of high school papers as well by eliminating the “curricular” limit.
Jettisoning the Hazelwood standard restricting only curricular-based newspapers was merely the first of Easterbrook’s violations of precedent. He also annihilates the common understanding of “limited public forum,” a term created by the Supreme Court to provide a middle ground between the unregulated public forum (such as standing on a soapbox on the quad) and a non-public forum (such as a university-controlled alumni magazine).
“If the paper operated in a public forum, the university could not vet its contents,” Easterbrook wrote. He then asked, “was the reporter a speaker in a public forum (no censorship allowed?) or did the University either create a non-public forum or publish the paper itself (a closed forum where content may be supervised)?” Of course, a newspaper isn’t a public forum like a soapbox. It’s limited to the students who run the newspaper. By declaring that only a pure public forum is entitled to Constitutional protection, Easterbrook eliminates the First Amendment on college campuses for any limited public forum, including any student-funded activities.
“What, then, was the status of the Innovator?” Easterbrook continued. “Did the university establish a public forum? Or did it hedge the funding with controls that left the university itself as the newspaper’s publisher?” By his logic, the only speakers or newspapers on a public college campus that fall under public forum protection would be those that receive no funding from student fees or university funds (a rare commodity indeed). Any funding “controls” are directly tied to ideological controls.
Easterbrook concluded, “Freedom of speech does not imply that someone else must pay.” This is the philosophy of “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” and the Supreme Court has rejected it over and over again at public colleges.
Easterbrook is claiming that if the university can require student groups to follow funding rules designed to prevent fraud (and demand that student fee money be spent on a newspaper rather than, say, a private party), then the administration must be granted total control over the content of the newspaper.
A Break With Precedent
This is a bizarre conclusion, considering that the Supreme Court has repeatedly banned such control by colleges in funding cases.
In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Court ruled that a public university cannot ban funding for a newspaper based on its religious content. Now the Seventh Circuit has declared that a public university may be obliged to fund a religious newspaper, but it can impose any control over its contents. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, the Supreme Court ruled that public colleges must ban all viewpoint discrimination in funding student groups. It would be bizarre if college administrators were granted the direct power to control the viewpoints expressed in student newspapers, while by expressly banned from making funding decisions based on viewpoint. Yet this is what Easterbrook’s opinion permits.
Any non-public forum that is funded by the university to any degree could be controlled and censored by administrators. Any use of campus space by a student organization is subsidized by the university, as are all registered student groups that receive any benefits or funding. Therefore, all of these groups are subject to total control by the administration under Easterbrook’s ruling.
In essence, Easterbrook argued that there is only one kind of censorship that is impermissible on a public college campus: banning someone from speaking for free on a soapbox on the quad. In all other cases, under the Hosty v. Carter ruling, college administrators across the country now have a green light to ban anything they want, from controversial campus speakers to critical student newspapers.
Although the Hosty ruling itself only applies to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the states covered by the Seventh Circuit, the “qualified immunity” test allows any public college administrators to avoid damages in any case where the law is unclear -- and the Hosty case certainly makes freedom of the student press an unclear idea.
The Hosty decision could also affect faculty academic freedom. If college students have no more Constitutional protections than first graders do, then college professors may have no more rights than elementary school teachers. Decades of cases establishing the unique legal status of colleges and academic freedom, based on the maturity and rights of college students, might be wiped away if Hosty is upheld.
Easterbrook also hauled out the dubious idea of institutional academic freedom: “Let us not forget that academic freedom includes the authority of the university to manage an academic community and evaluate teaching and scholarship free from interference by other units of government, including the courts.” If “academic freedom” means only the power of administrators to “manage an academic community,” then students and professors alike will be subject to censorship by the administration.
The Innovator has been shut down for almost five years, replaced by the administration with a more pliable newspaper where students never investigate or criticize their college. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the Seventh Circuit’s unprecedented act of conservative judicial activism, the Innovator may only be the first among many newspapers and student organizations silenced by administrators at public colleges, with the blessing of the courts.
On Tuesday -- as the republic awaited the formal launch of the latest Supreme Court nomination death-match -- Stanley Fish appeared in The New York Times with a short article titled "Intentional Neglect." Its thesis is sharp, bold, and deceptively straightforward.
As we enter the inescapable squall of debate over who shall take the place of Sandra Day O'Connor, announces Fish, we need to be clear on some basic things. Interpreting the Constitution is a matter of determining its authors' intent. Talk of "a living constitution" that must remain open to the changing times -- that, in short, is not interpretation, but a roundabout means of rewriting the Constitution.
The response in some quarters has involved gestures of shock -- and from one or two conservatives, anyway, of gratified astonishment. How sensible the man is! What a voice for sweet reason! Is this Stanley Fish not the same man who turned the English department at Duke into a training camp for left-wing theoretical guerillas? Has he perhaps had a change of heart?
Fish is widely recognized, even outside academe, as a celebrity and a power broker. He is the one person at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association who does not wear a name tag. And he has a well-established profile as the champion of the anti-foundationalism that non-academic civilians understand to be the, well, foundation of contemporary academic radicalism.
So when he goes on "The O'Reilly Show" -- or weighs in with an op-ed in the Times -- many people naturally assume that Fish is speaking as some kind of leftist. Hence the surprise at his latest article, which at least some readers might take as an application to join the Federalist Society.
All of which underscores the difference between being well-known and being well-understood.
There is nothing in Tuesday's op-ed that Fish hasn't argued many times over the years. Many, many times, over many, many years. (Whatever debate may exist over his other virtues, the man is a stickler for consistency.) But he is so famous that his ideas have long since been dwarfed by his reputation.
His current stress on the framers' intent as the necessary focus of interpreting the Constitution sound paradoxical, coming from a literary theorist who came into prominence, in the 1970s, as the most dogged champion of reader-response criticism. Actually, there is a pretty direct line of march from one position to the next.
One modest claim in favor of the reader-response school might be that its very name was a case of truth in advertising. (I speak of it in the past tense because it's been some while since the movement was at its peak. No doubt there are still a few partisans still fighting for the cause, like those stray Japanese soldiers from World War Two who used to turn up on islands in the Pacific.) Reader-response analysis involved looking at how the audience of a literary work interacted with it -- how, in a sense, the meaning of a text was produced at the moment the reader was consuming it.
That sounds like a recipe for, well, just making stuff up. Mix one part epistemological relativism and one part narcissism, and you get the sophomore's hermeneutic: "That's what the book means to me." Add a dash of paranoia, and you get: "I think Shakespeare was a Freemason, and my reading is as good as any other."
But you can't judge a method by its most inane or implausible applications. In the case of Fish's version of reader-response analysis, there was a sort of hermeneutic shock-absorber built right in. He called it "the interpretive community." An individual reader might come up with some bizarre personal meaning for a work. For the most part, however, reading is conditioned by one's membership in groups, and those groups tend to create something like a consensus about what counts as the range of sound understanding. There are rules for what counts as good evidence, or a well-made argument.
Normally those rules aren't written down someplace. They exist at the level of tacit knowledge; you either absorb them and read accordingly, or you aren't really part of that particular community. And the rules can change over time. A work's meaning isn't fixed for all time, like a face sculpted in marble. Nor does it change at random, like a kaleidoscope image. It's more like the various productions of a play -- varying over time depending on who's directing, who's acting, and how big the stage is.
Fish's later writings on law and on current issues are, in effect, an expansion of the idea of the interpretive community to the world beyond the printed page. We participate in institutions and in civic life in the same sense that we read and understand a work of literature -- as people who always find ourselves embedded in a structure of rules, assumptions, traditions, etc., that implicitly govern what counts as acceptable.
From Fish's perspective, it is the mistake of a certain kind of fundamentalism (religious or secular) to think that we can get to the level of bedrock truths that aren't so conditioned. Or to think that, by reasoning, we can ascend to lofty heights of abstraction, far above all the diverse and squabbling micro-communities. You never get outside of some kind of interpretive community, following rules that are socially constructed.
But that doesn't mean they are imaginary -- that anything goes.
Fish's often uses the game of baseball as his example of something that is both socially constructed and real. Does a baseball or bat exist in nature? Does "three strikes and you're out" follow from any law known to the sciences? The answer, in each case, is "no." Are baseballs and bats real? Does the three-strikes rule have predictable effects on the course of the game? Likewise, the answer is "yes." So the game of baseball is both socially constructed and real. It is the product of human activity, but not subject to anybody's whim. (The umpire's eyesight, yes. But that doesn't gainsay Fish's basic point.)
Now, talk of social construction always sounds like it might have a radical agenda. To anyone who thinks in terms of natural law, it reeks of Jacobinism. After all, if something is socially constructed, that means that it might be re-constructed, right? And that means it probably should be, at some point.... The next thing you know, there are guillotines.
But actually, if you look at them closely, Fish's ideas seem a bit closer to the counter-Enlightenment doctrines that emerged following the French revolution. The binding force of community, the subordination of reason to the implicit code of tradition, the sense that our freedom is limited (or at least conditioned) by rules that can't be redrawn all at once ... this sounds a little bit like something from Edmund Burke, or at least from Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.
Not to go overboard with this. When he gives voice to political opinions (in favor of affirmative action, say, or in defense of speech codes) he tends to sound like a garden-variety liberal. But Fish has been very skeptical of the academic left, on the grounds that radical professors tend to blur the distinction between scholarship and political activity. As he argued in Professional Correctness, published 10 years ago by Harvard University Press, "queering Shakespeare" isn't political in the same sense as mobilizing to increase AIDS funding; rather, it's a matter of making certain moves in the interpretive community that is interested in Elizabethan literature.
In Fish's own words: "There are no regular routes by which the accomplishments of academics in general and literary academics in particular can be transformed into the currency of politics." And the effort to bring his ideas to bear on legal theory, over the years, have not really disproved that point.
In effect, Fish's writings have been a way of minimizing the possible interaction between law and literature. He has argued -- with exhausting, even wearying consistency -- that the conduct of legal affairs is ultimately a matter of the legal interpretive community following its own codes, traditions, and methods.
A case in point is Fish's seemingly straightforward claim that "interpreting the Constitution" means "trying to figure out what the framers had in mind." That sounds like a directive -- as if Fish is saying that we'd just need to find the right quotation from The Federalist Paper, perhaps, to understand how to apply the Constitution to legislation regarding stem-cell research. And there is, then, a strong tendency to assume that such an interpretation would then tilt toward the conservative side.
But not so fast. As Fish noted in a discussion of the Bork nomination, it is a mistake to cede "original intent" arguments to the right, just because some conservative jurists frame their arguments in those terms.
"It is perfectly possible," wrote Fish, "to be in favor of abortion rights and also to label oneself as an originalist, as someone who hews to the intention of the framers. It would just be a matter of characterizing those intentions so that the right to abortion would seem obviously to follow from them.
One might, for example, argue (as many have) that even though the Fourteenth Amendment nowhere mentions abortion rights, a correct understanding of its authors' more general intention requires that such rights be protected." Likewise, one could argue against abortion rights on grounds that aren't anchored in claims about original intent.
"In short, there is no necessary relationship between declaring oneself an originalist and coming out on one side or the other of a particular issue."
Putting it another way, the effort to define "original intent" is both a basic part of the work of the legal interpretive community and a product of rules specific to that community. Some sharp-eyed person may well put my head on a platter for saying this, but what the hell: It sure looks as if Stanley Fish has reinvented legal positivism by way of a kind of roll-with-the-punches pragmatism.
Speaking of punches ... they should start flying any minute now. What does Fish have to say about the debates that are about to ensue? How should the issues of the nomination fight be understood by those of us who are mere citizens of the Republic, rather than members of the legal interpretive community? His advice, in short, is to recognize that it's not a question of whether or not the nominee is an originalist, but rather, of what kind.
"So," as he put it on Tuesday, " if you want to know how someone is likely to act on the bench, you will have to set all the labels aside and pay attention to the nominee's reasoning in response to the posing of hypothetical situations.... Does he or she construe intention narrowly and limit it to possibilities the framers could have foreseen, or is intention considered more broadly and extended to the positions the framers would likely have taken if they knew then what we know now? ... And then, if after having made that calculation you decide you are for this person, you can hope that the performance you see today predicts the performances of years to come. But don't bet on it."
There may be a certain amount of insight in Fish's thoughts. Still, it seems like the kind of wisdom that doesn't really do anybody much good.
When people think about a "threat," they tend to imagine a variety of dark scenarios -- from the mugger in the alley who says, “Your money or your life,” to the chilling answering machine message where a faceless person says, "I will kill you.” Threats like those have never been considered "free speech." In fact, true threats are a crime. In general, for a comment to qualify as a true threat, it must cause reasonable people to believe that they are going to be physically harmed.
Unfortunately, many colleges -- eager to ban speech that administrators or students do not like -- have latched onto the "threat” exception of the First Amendment to justify banning speech that is not actually threatening (as the term has been defined by the law) but instead is merely offensive to the listener. Redefining a “threat” as anything that offends is a dangerous game that discredits accusers, underestimates students' ability to cope with ideas they dislike, and trivializes the seriousness of actual threats of violence.
The latest example of this disturbing trend comes from William Paterson University, a public university in New Jersey. Jihad Daniel, a master’s student and university employee, privately responded to a mass e-mail message sent by a professor, Arlene Holpp Scala, announcing a campus showing of Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, a film Scala described as a “lesbian relationship story.” The e-mail provided a link so that recipients could contact Scala. In his response, Daniel, a devout Muslim, wrote, "Do not send me any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.’ These are perversions. The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned." That is the entirety of his response. All too predictably on the contemporary campus, Scala brought charges against Daniel for making her "feel threatened at [her] place of work." Showing complete disregard of the right to dissent protected under the First Amendment, the university found Daniel guilty of "discrimination" and "harassment."
Scala’s reliance on the claim that she felt “threatened” is especially disturbing. Did she really fear that this 63-year-old man would harm her, just because they disagree about homosexuality? Yes, many people might find Daniels’ opinion offensive, but the expression of a religious opinion is hardly a threat.
Sadly, Daniel’s case is just one example of how threat allegations are abused on campus. For example, Ursula Monaco, a part-time student at Suffolk County Community College, on Long Island, was punished in 2003 for an e-mail message she accidentally sent to her professor in which she referred to the professor as a "cunt." Even though that the e-mail was clearly addressed to someone else and that the First Amendment has no exception for even the c-word, Monaco was found guilty of both “harassment” and “intimidation.”
To clarify, “intimidation” in the legal sense is essentially the same thing as a threat and doesn’t occur any time a person feels intimidated; such a vague and broad standard would devour free speech. According to the Supreme Court, intimidation is “a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Did the Suffolk County professor really believe she was in physical danger because of a single profanity uttered by a 55-year-old grandmother? Unlikely. Yet the administration deemed her guilty of "threatening, intimidating," and "harassing" the professor. Fortunately, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came to Monaco’s defense. After eight months of corresponding with the college, the administration eventually decided to “suspend” the punishments.
It was clear from the start that Suffolk County’s administration had used the e-mail as a pretext for severely punishing Monaco, who was a student journalist and a persistent critic of the administration. Tellingly, her punishment included being banned from having “any contact with the student newspaper,” and stipulated that she “may not contact the office” of any school paper by “any means, including mail, telephone or e-mail,” that she “may not submit articles” to any college paper, or “propose or suggest an article to anyone associated with a campus newspaper.” She was even banned from “approach[ing] any member of the campus community for the purpose of collecting information with which to write a news article.”
For those familiar with history, there is nothing surprising about people in positions of power using perceived exceptions to free speech to silence vocal critics. In fact, the very predictability that cases like Monaco’s will arise is why we must be careful not to allow legitimate exceptions to free speech, like threats, to grow into amorphous, easily abused concepts.
Students are not the only ones harmed by college administrators’ expansive use of the concept of threats. At the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, a professor, Sandra Bond, was punished by the administration for posting two signs on her office in 2003. One said, "The End is Near," while the other was a K-Mart advertisement for guns and ammunition. The first sign referred to her contract being almost finished and her leaving the university, while she posted the latter because she found K-Mart’s slogan "The Stuff of Life" ironic in an ad for firearms. Bond, who was in her mid-40s -- and who walked with a cane due to multiple sclerosis -- had apparently scared the criminal justice department so badly that she was found guilty of threatening and intimidating the department, and placed on “administrative leave…effective immediately.” They even forbade her from entering her office building without official permission.
Do cases like those at William Patterson, Suffolk and Alaska arise from a pervasive misunderstanding of what "threats" actually mean? The recent case at Washington State University might suggest a more cynical answer. A student, Chris Lee, wrote and produced an intentionally provocative comedy/musical mocking The Passion of the Christ. In the spirit of South Park, the play went out if its way to mock everything from race, to religion, to sexual orientation, to stereotypes themselves. To make sure people knew what they were getting into, the play was widely publicized as being potentially "offensive or inflammatory to all audiences," and identification was checked at the door to prevent those 17 or under from entering.
At the April 21, 2005, performance of the play, approximately 40 student protestors attended. The protestors stopped the play several times with shouts and threats. Unlike those in the cases above, these threats were crystal clear. According to Lee, and a tape of the performance, these threats included, “I kill you,” “You better watch out,” “Get off of there or I’ll mop your fucking head,” “We will get you outside,” and, “We will kill you.” Washington State's security refused Lee’s request to remove the protestors and even told Lee to change the lyrics to one of his songs “to avoid a possible riot or physical harm.” As FIRE wrote at the time, “Washington State security’s obligation was to protect the performance -- not to enforce the will of a mob that it claimed teetered on the brink of violence.”
Surely, Washington State would not tolerate actual unlawful intimidation of a student production. After all, the university had already produced The Vagina Monologues, as well as Tales of the Lost Formicans, which included a depiction of a character masturbating onto an American flag. Certainly, Washington State administrators understood that they must not empower mobs to silence any performances that might offend their sensibilities? Well, they may have understood that, but in this case, they didn’t care. Not only did the president of the university defend the mob’s actions as a “responsible” exercise of their free speech and refuse to reprimand the campus police, but it turns out Washington State actually purchased the tickets for the protestors in the first place!
So in one case a 63-year-old student, and in two others two middle aged women (the taller of the two is 5’4”), are portrayed as placing other adults in mortal terror, while a mob of 40 angry students disrupting a play and shouting death threats is called a “responsible” exercise of free speech!? These kinds of distortions and double standards are all too common on the contemporary campus. The danger posed by the above cases, however, are especially grave. Washington State's reliance on violent mobs to silence social satire is especially chilling and reminiscent of dark chapters in our history. While in cases like Washington State or Suffolk, the administrators seem to fail to understand that by relying on such a loose definition of “threats” they may undermine how seriously the public takes real claims in the future. It may be time for a refresher course in The Boy Who Cried Wolf 101.
Greg Lukianoff and Azhar Majeed
Greg Lukianoff is director of legal and public advocacy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Azhar Majeed is a second year student at University of Michigan Law School and a summer legal intern for FIRE.
The rule of law is to the routines of an ordinary, civilized existence roughly what oxygen is to long division. It's not actually part of the equation, but you can't actually make the calculations without it. Not that it guarantees justice. There may be lapses, omissions, misfires; and if the laws themselves are bad, then the rule of law can bring misery. And there's more to life than regularity. Profound truths may by revealed by transgression, charismatic authority, and ecstatic excesses embodying the creative and destructive dimensions of poetry, mystery, and the sacred. (That said, I'd still rather live in a city with zoning ordinances.)
In The Law in Shambles -- just published in the Prickly Paradigm series, distributed by the University of Chicago Press -- Thomas Geoghegan offers an incisive criticism, from the left, of the idea that the expression "rule of law" is at all appropriate to the way we live now. His booklet is conversational, wide-ranging, and absolutely terrifying. It deserves a wide readership.
In saying that Geoghegan's perspective comes "from the left," I've made room for misunderstandings that should be cleared up right away. First of all, he's not denouncing the whole concept of rule of law as a more or less streamlined way of carrying out the "golden rule" of capitalism, that he with the gold makes the rules. (That's the paleo-Marxist position. Some of the International Socialist Organization activists on your campus might make this argument.) Nor is Geoghegan criticizing actually existing constitutional democracy (as we might call it) from the vantage point of some "original position" of fairness, A Theory of Justice-style.
The author is a labor lawyer (though he has also been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin). He's arguing from his own court cases, and from perceived trends -- not from first principles. He once loved the work of John Rawls, and the dream is not quite dead; but really, that was a long time ago. "Ever since he wrote that book," Geoghegan says, "it's as if someone with a voodoo doll put a hex on his whole approach."
No, Geoghegan's criticism is less abstract, more crunchy. It's not just that respect for the awesome majesty of the law is now largely pro forma. Rather, in important regards the whole edifice has been gutted; before long, there won't even be any nails holding the facade together.
The increasingly robust and strident contempt for the judiciary expressed by the American right is only part of it, if the most bewildering for anybody who remembers the old conservative motto of "law and order." Now the emphasis is just on order, plain and simple. And not in the sense conveyed by Jack Webb's no-nonsense demeanor on Dragnet. More like Joseph de Maistre's rhapsody over the hangman's role as cornerstone of civilization.
Which is worrisome, no doubt about it. But Geoghegan is more concerned about the low-key, day-to-day degradations of the rule of law. Consider, for example, the case of the rat turds. Geoghegan worked on a brief on behalf of workers who had lost their jobs when a chicken-processing plant shut down -- suing on their behalf under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires that a factory owner give employees 60 days notice that a plant will be shut down. To this, the chicken-processing guy had a ready answer: He had been shut down by the Department of Agriculture for health-code violations -- an unforeseen contingency, he said.
He had an argument, says Geoghegan: "Yes, he may have done bad things, and let rats run wild, and let rats shit on the chicken meat. And yes, it is even true that the inspectors of the Department of Agriculture gave him 'write-ups.' But here is the issue: Was it reasonable for the owner to foresee that the DOA would enforce its own regulation?" After all, everybody in the business knows that you get the write-up and pay the fine.
"That," as Geoghegan says, "was his claim: DOA is more or less a joke. Under Bush I, then Clinton, and then Bush II, it's gotten worse.... Now comes the ruling of the district judge, who is a liberal, a Clinton appointee: Yes, he says, it was unforeseeable. It was as if he took judicial notice that, as a matter of common knowledge, the government does not enforce the laws.... In other words, the application of the rule of law is the equivalent of an 'act of God.' Like a hurricane."
Behind such incidents, the author sees at work an intricate play of mutually reinforcing tendencies. One is the weak and shrinking labor movement. Another is the long-term decline in voter turnout (thereby eroding any checks on wingnuttery that may exist within the ideological sphere). And then there is the systematic underfunding of enforcement for whatever regulations of the economic sphere are still on the books. The legal center of gravity of civil society shifts from contract (with its schedule of benefits and obligations) to tort (so that the only right that matters is the one to collect on damages).
Some of this is familiar, but ne'er so well expressed. Were there a serious movement in this country to challenge the present course of things, The Law in Shambles would be available in a grubby newsprint version selling for 10 cents, and distributed by the hundreds of thousands. Instead, you have to pay 10 bucks for it. This is not good.