College to student group: No selling Christmas trees, only ‘holiday’ trees

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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I’m not a big believer in the “war on Christmas” rhetoric that we often hear around this time of year. In a religiously diverse and pluralistic society like ours, politicians, corporations, and other institutions are naturally going to adjust the way they express themselves in order to avoid offending their constituents or customers.

But every so often in my work at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), I see an example of seasonal political correctness so ridiculous that it makes me want to put my head down on my desk. Such is the case at Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) in North Carolina, where a Christmas tree sale fundraiser for a student group was unilaterally changed to a “holiday tree” sale by campus administrators.

At WPCC, an environmental student group called the BEST Society decided to hold a fundraiser for a group called Angel Tree, which provides Christmas (er … holiday?) gifts to children by selling Christmas (aargh, I mean holiday!) trees to the local community. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian legal organization representing the group, the college allows student groups to use various spaces on campus, in the college newspaper, and online to advertise their activities. So the BEST Society filled out a form asking the college to announce that “The BEST Society will be selling Christmas trees.” And at first, the college did. But within days, the word “Christmas” in the message was replaced with “holiday” in every single venue. (It has since been changed back, but here’s an example of it.)

WPCC has therefore revealed itself to be another adherent of what I have called the “magic words” or “Lord Voldemort” school of censorship. In the massively popular Harry Potter books, most characters will not say the name of the main villain, “Lord Voldemort,” instead calling him “He-who-must-not-be-named.” Their worry is that if they say Voldemort’s name, they will magically attract his attention, with dire consequences.

Of course, WPCC does not actually cite magical reasons for its censorship. Instead, it declared, “We cannot market your trees in association solely with a Christian event.” This is dubious in and of itself, but more importantly, that’s not the right way to look at what the BEST Society was actually asking WPCC to do. WPCC had a policy of making its various methods of communication equally open to all student groups to advertise their events. It is not responsible for the viewpoints expressed by those groups, or for the religious (or secular) content of those groups’ expression. If Jewish students want to invite the community to a Hanukkah celebration, they do not have to call it an “8-day Semitic holiday observance.” In America, you’re allowed to call a thing by its actual name.

The Constitution doesn’t require us to avoid the use of “magic” words, and it doesn’t require (or even permit) public colleges to do so either. As ADF points out in its letter to WPCC, in a 1995 case involving the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court wrote that “it is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys.” Yet that’s precisely what WPCC did in this case.

Why did this happen? Is WPCC hostile to Christmas? Perhaps; we’re unlikely to know for sure. What’s more likely, though, is that WPCC has imbibed the idea, so popular on campuses these days, that avoiding offense is not just a good thing to do, but actually some sort of legal requirement. We see it at places like Syracuse, where the police infamously threatened to censor “offensive” Halloween costumes. At places like Auburn, where administrators ordered a Ron Paul poster taken down from a students’ window while others remained hanging. And at places like San Francisco State University, where students were investigated for months for holding an anti-terrorism protest where they stepped on Hamas and Hezbollah flags.

But American courts stubbornly continue to insist that offending someone is not a crime — and thank goodness for it.

In a nation of 300 million, there are undoubtedly some people who would be offended by seeing a student group’s Christmas tree sale advertised on a public college campus. There are others who would see it as an entanglement of church and state. But the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has made clear that the former is no reason to censor student expression, and the latter is simply not true. If this incident teaches other colleges not to make the same mistake as WPCC, I’d consider that a great holiday present to our nation.

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