Anyone with an internet connection is familiar with the trope of the supposedly “fragile,” liberal college student. These students, we’re told, are intellectually fragile, uninterested in debate, and against free speech.
This line of logic, while extremely convenient for discrediting nascent and historically-suppressed causes, obscures other concrete actions that actually do hinder freedom of expression.
Fordham University’s recent decision to override the United Student Government’s decision to approve a new club, Students for Justice in Palestine, is merely one example.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had been applying for official club status since Nov. 2015. The United Student Government (USG) approved the request nearly one year later on Nov. 17, 2016, and the University overrode USG to veto the club the following month.
While this is hardly as flashy as a student protest over a controversial speaker, it’s important that it not be ignored.
SJP’s constitution stated that its mission was “to build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.”
Even if you disagree with SJP’s stance on Palestine, Fordham’s decision to veto the student government’s decision to approve this SJP should be concerning. After all, free speech means making space even for perspectives that might cause discomfort, a point that conservative commentators love to proclaim.
The media explodes when “social justice warriors” protest a speaker, but there’s relative silence when university administrators make decisions that curb free speech in long-term ways.
As an alumnus of Fordham University, I’m fairly well acquainted with the university’s particular brand of free speech obstruction, but the issue is hardly unique to Fordham. Some university administrators and conservative commentators have become very skilled at painting college students as the opponents of free speech while hiding universities’ far more blatant affronts on freedom of expression.
In response to requests for comment on the decision to veto SJP, for example, Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, provided the following official University statement to The Fordham Ram:
“Fordham has no registered student clubs the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation against another nation. For the University’s purposes, the country of origin of the student organizers is irrelevant, as is their particular political stance. The narrowness of Students for Justice in Palestine’s political focus makes it more akin to a lobbying group than a student club. Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty, and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.”
This statement seems reasonable at a glance, but is misleading for a number of reasons.
Nothing in Fordham’s document on “Club Rights & Responsibilities” makes any mention of a club’s “narrowness” as a criterion for approval. In fact, the most direct statement the document makes regarding a club’s political stance serves mostly to distinguish University opinion from the opinions expressed by a student group.
“Registration of a student group in no way implies that the University necessarily endorses positions or points of view espoused privately or publicly by members of the organization,” the document states. “All clubs are responsible to publicly make this fact known, and that they do nothing that will cause this fact to come into question or compromise.”
Furthermore, how exactly does Fordham define “narrowness”? Why is Respect for Life (a Fordham club which calls itself “a campus organization dedicated to living out the belief that all human life is sacred and must be protected from attacks upon its dignity”) not too “narrow”?
The statement’s assertion that, “Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty, and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue,” is also misleading.
Those familiar with Fordham’s student life policies understand that staging any type of protest action is onerous on either of the university’s New York City campuses. Fordham’s student handbook states that anyone planning to stage a protest is required to meet with the Dean of Students in order to receive approval.
Additionally, anyone who wishes to distribute material on campus (even if that just means stapling a poster to a bulletin board) must get the material approved either by the Dean of Students or by the Assistant Dean or Director of Student Leadership and Community Development.
In other words, spontaneous demonstration is virtually impossible even as an officially-recognized student group. And demonstration of any kind is particularly difficult for those who aren’t part of an official student group.
Fordham administrators like to dance around this issue by saying that their demonstration policies are legal and that Fordham’s demonstration policies mirror New York City’s. While the former assertion is true, the latter is flatly false: New Yorkers who wish to distribute handbills on a public sidewalk or in a public park, have a demonstration, rally or press conference on a public sidewalk, or march on a public sidewalk without using amplified sound, do not need any permits.
In other words, Fordham’s logic for denying SJP club status is shaky because it’s not entirely honest.
To be fair, it’s unlikely that Fordham made this decision because it’s pushing some hidden conservative agenda. Instead, the veto is likely based on public relations and fundraising considerations.
The outrage machine on the Right—in the form of Fox News, Breitbart, The New York Post, etc.—has proven itself extremely effective in mobilizing strong public anger that universities, understandably, want to avoid.
Perhaps this is because instances of the left “attacking” freedom of expression are splashier and easier to package in a way that makes them seem ridiculous. Liberal political actions on campus are often student-driven, spontaneous, and protest-oriented, making them easy targets for commentators eager to discredit the causes for which they stand.
Conservative political actions on campus sometimes have these qualities as well, but are often better defined by bureaucracy, official letterhead, and vague appeals to “policy.”
Protesters are far easier to poke fun at than bureaucratic red tape.
As a result, it is often more convenient for university administrators to obstruct liberal student groups (whose actions might result in bad press and angry calls from wealthy alumni) rather than face the PR risks those students’ future actions might pose for the university.
Put more simply, from a PR standpoint, universities are incentivized to act as roadblocks to free speech instead of enablers of it, as long as they can do so sneakily by hiding behind vague institutional policies and obscure bureaucratic procedures.
Of course, liberals (and others who are troubled by this type of conduct) could counteract this problem by staying more aware of these issues and calling out their universities when such problems arise.
This means that the burden falls largely on alumni. Alumni need to use their power by staying informed of these issues—which likely means reading your college’s student newspaper—and calling or emailing their alma maters to say they’re concerned about donating to an institution that isn’t acting as a beacon of free speech.
Speech doesn’t protect itself. If you’re concerned about freedom of expression, you’ll need to speak up.