University totalitarianism leaves no free speech behind

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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College administrators seem to be natural enemies of student newspapers. Time after time, they have waged war against student publications: refusing to take action against widespread newspaper theft; trying to withhold student-fee funding from papers due to controversial content; and even threatening academic sanctions against individual student journalists who dare to criticize the school. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, has chronicled many of these battles in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus.

The explosion in the number of administrators on the modern college campus — since 2005, American universities have employed more administrators than full-time faculty — has only exacerbated this conflict. Many student papers have chosen to establish their independence by severing ties with their universities. The Independent Florida Alligator, the daily student newspaper of the University of Florida (UF), made this decision nearly 40 years ago, splitting from the university after numerous clashes with administrators. The largest student-run newspaper in the United States, the Alligator currently distributes its issues, which focus on matters of interest to the UF community, in its signature orange racks. As any sports enthusiast can tell you, the color orange means something at UF.

Perhaps it was inevitable that UF would ultimately force the independent Alligator to remove its orange racks from campus — and it has demanded that this happen by August 15. The university is requiring the Alligator to lease space in university-owned black racks, instead. The Alligator must also sign a licensing agreement with UF that imposes a distribution fee on the newspaper — even though the Alligator is a free publication. Requirements like this give administrators power over newspapers that have already declared their independence from university control. Imposing fees on a free paper and regulating its means of distribution not only allows administrators to place financial pressure on the Alligator, but also jeopardizes the newspaper’s ability to reach UF students.

What might motivate UF administrators to take such an unusual step? Concern over aesthetics? A preference for the color black over the school’s own orange? Given the history between the Alligator and the university, the likely answer is far more worrisome. Today’s bloated administrative class seems determined to control the thoughts and actions of every student, organization, and newspaper that has any presence on campus, using tools like speech codes and free speech zones to limit the expressive rights of students and faculty. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s upcoming book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, explores this phenomenon in depth.

Taken alone, newspaper boxes are not such a big deal. But taking each of the incidents alone belies the scope of the problem. While colleges like the University of Cincinnati take hit after hit in court (using taxpayer dollars) defending the obviously indefensible — at UC, a policy that limited protests and even signature gathering to 0.1 percent of the campus — their peer institutions stick their fingers in their ears and pretend nothing is wrong. Sinclair Community College is located in Dayton, Ohio, a scant 45 miles away from the University of Cincinnati, and yet is now predictably defending itself in court after telling pro-life protesters (and many others over 22 years) that they weren’t allowed to carry signs for their “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally. And the president of Sinclair only made things worse when he attempted to defend the sign ban on the grounds that it had something to do with domestic terrorism. (I am not making this up.)

With college prices higher than ever, student loan debt north of a trillion dollars, and increasing talk of a higher education “bubble” similar to the housing and dot-com bubbles of recent years, American universities can ill afford more of this expensive, counterproductive, and frequently unlawful totalitarianism. It’s time campus administrators stopped worrying about what students say while on campus and started worrying more about what they’ll say when they’re asked if they still want to support those campuses after they’ve graduated.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).