Recently two Michigan colleges were exposed trying to censor students.
First, Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) directed that all communications with the media be routed through the communications office, including requests from the student paper -- even if they wanted to interview other students. Even more discouraging than the fact administrators would want to "control the story" on a college campus -- a place dedicated (in theory anyway) to the free exchange of ideas -- was the reaction of the student government. According to the school's paper, the Collegiate, the Student Alliance president thought that it made sense for the communication department to make sure the college was only portrayed in a favorable light. She found the rules to be fair because "[a]s a student I need to trust that the rules are in place for a reason."
No, no you don't. GRCC is a public community college -- i.e., a government entity -- and when the government tries to censor speech, the First Amendment is violated and trust with the governed is broken. That is precisely when the rules need to be scrutinized with great skepticism.
After public criticism, GRCC now claims that its policy was merely a protocol that was misunderstood. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, hears the "misunderstanding" excuse a lot when colleges are caught censoring students or faculty. We'll be watching to make sure that no more "misunderstandings" occur on GRCC's campus.
As the administrators at Western Michigan University (WMU) have recently discovered, FIRE does more than just watch for First Amendment violations. We also work with students to take action, including lawsuits. Most recently, FIRE assisted the Kalamazoo Peace Center (KPC), a student organization, in bringing a lawsuit last week against WMU for violating its First Amendment rights.
KPC found out that censorship comes in many forms when it invited rapper and activist Boots Riley to WMU. School officials first refused to provide space for the event because Riley was allegedly a threat to public safety and then decided he could appear only if KPC paid for private security, which it couldn't afford.
The Supreme Court long ago decided that no difference exists between establishing "rules" that censor speech and imposing "taxes on knowledge" to stifle dissent. WMU's "security fee" was a price tag the school unilaterally imposed on speech it didn't like in order to silence it.
KPC is not suing because it didn't get a room on WMU's campus. (It was able to hold the Riley event at an alternate venue.) It is suing because WMU's department of public security claims the authority, in violation of the First Amendment, to decide on a "case by case" basis what speakers can appear on campus and which are taxed into silence. KPC is standing up for the rights of all WMU students and faculty to have their voices heard. FIRE is honored to be able to sponsor this litigation through our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
Regardless of whether censorship is disguised as a "communications policy," a "security fee," or something else, it is unconstitutional. Colleges and universities must stop pretending otherwise.