Bucknell University Hardens Policy Used to Shut Down Student Protests: Student newspaper rejects FIRE ad

601 Walnut Street, Suite 510 Philadelphia PA 19106
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Phone: 215-717-3473 September 21, 2009

LEWISBURG, Pa., September 21, 2009—A culture of fear appears to be chilling expression at Bucknell University, where even the student newspaper fears a libel lawsuit from Associate Dean of Students Gerald W. Commerford if it were to print a critical advertisement from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). After Bucknell administrators misapplied and abused Bucknell’s Sales and Solicitation and nondiscrimination policies last semester to shut down the Bucknell University Conservatives Club’s (BUCC’s) protests of affirmative action and President Obama’s economic stimulus, the group turned to FIRE for help. Bucknell has expanded and hardened the language in its policies affecting such protests and still insists that "affirmative action bake sales" have no place in the public areas of the campus. FIRE now lists Bucknell as a Red Alert school, one of only six "worst of the worst" schools in America when it comes to student rights on campus.

"Consider this: Bucknell has created a campus culture such that an independent student newspaper, The Bucknellian, won’t even print an outside advertisement critical of the university," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Along with the college’s ban on handbills criticizing the stimulus plan and on affirmative action bake sale protests, it has become clear that Bucknell is teaching students to fear authority and keep quiet or face punishment."

Bucknell’s most 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 the 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 covered only sales and fundraising materials, Mickanis insisted via e-mail that prior permission was needed to distribute any materials "out in the open"—"anything from Bibles to other matter."

Then, on April 7, administrators shut down BUCC’s "affirmative action bake sale" protest, a satirical protest of race-conscious policies commonly held on campuses across the country. A video recording shows that an hour into BUCC’s protest, Commerford informed the students that he had the "opportunity" to shut down the sale because they were charging lower prices than promised for baked goods. BUCC members quickly filed an application to hold the same event two weeks later, but in a recorded conversation, Commerford said that such a bake sale would violate Bucknell’s nondiscrimination policy—even with satirical, optional pricing. He added that affirmative action "needs to be debated in its proper forum, ok, and not on the public property of the campus."

As part of its response to these acts of censorship, FIRE attempted to place an advertisement in the first fall issue of The Bucknellian, the supposedly independent student newspaper, to alert students that Bucknell’s own promises of free speech cannot be counted on. Bucknellian Editor-in-Chief Lenore Flower refused to run the ad, however, telling FIRE on September 1 that the ad "might be construed as libel" and "could lead to legality issues for the Bucknellian." (The ad only reflects FIRE’s opinion and therefore is not libelous by any definition.)

"First, Dean Commerford silenced the conservative club’s expression. Now, even the student newspaper is afraid to print a perfectly lawful third-party ad about it," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. "Bucknell richly deserves its place on our Red Alert list of schools where students should think twice before jeopardizing their rights by enrolling."

FIRE’s rejected ad in The Bucknellian was FIRE’s latest effort to convince the private university to honor its own promises to its students. After the three instances of censorship this spring, FIRE wrote Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell, reminding him that the university’s handbook "instructs students not only that they have freedom of speech but that ‘deliberate interference’ with this freedom is prohibited." In June, after FIRE publicized the case, Bucknell responded with false and misleading information about what actually happened, flatly contradicting the documentary evidence. FIRE wrote Bucknell a second time on June 30 to correct the record, but Bucknell refused to accept that the documentation soundly contradicted Bucknell’s position. A third letter on August 6, to Bucknell’s trustees, has gone unanswered.

As of August 25, Bucknell thus joined five other schools on FIRE’s Red Alert list of campus censors. The other schools on the list, highlighted in a full-page ad in the " America’s Best Colleges" issue of U.S. News & World Report, are Brandeis University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University.

Over the summer, Bucknell silently expanded and renamed its Sales and Solicitation policy as "Sales and Promotions." It now ambiguously covers promotions that "promote … causes" and does not clarify whether distributing protest literature, an American free-speech tradition which includes Thomas Paine’s pivotal Common Sense and The Crisis, still requires prior permission. "In response to national criticism about its stifling of protest on campus, the university actually made its policies more restrictive and more clearly applicable to the BUCC. Bucknell’s retrenchment against student speech in the face of criticism should concern all students and faculty at Bucknell," Kissel said. "The new ‘promotions’ policy remains utterly inconsistent with Bucknell’s existing commitments to freedom of speech."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational organization that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.

Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; [email protected]
Brian C. Mitchell, President, Bucknell University: 570-577-1515; [email protected]
Gerald W. Commerford, Associate Dean of Students, Bucknell University: 570-577-1634; [email protected]