In a 1957 Supreme Court decision upholding the free-speech rights of university professors (Sweezy v. New Hampshire), Justice Felix Frankfurter quoted prominent South African scholars on the importance of academic freedom. At the time, these professors were resisting their government's proposal to segregate students based on race: "It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment, and creation."
Too bad contemporary American college administrators and faculty don't demonstrate as much support for free-speech rights in academia as did Apartheid-era Afrikaner professors. Perhaps a different definition of the "business of a university" is now the norm. As our New England–campus Muzzle muckraking shows, "speculation, experiment, and creation" couldn't possibly be the goal for administrators at these colleges and universities.
Mark-off the newsstands
In April, 23-year-old Boston University med student Philip Markoff — the so-called Craigslist Killer — made national headlines. The good folks at the BU admissions office were hoping prospective students would somehow not affiliate the alleged murderer with quotidian Terrier life. To that end, as the story unfolded, issues of the student-edited Daily Free Press — usually given prominence in the school's reception center — went mysteriously missing. An anonymous admissions-office employee told the Daily Free Press that the papers were purposely hidden "because of their content, which would reflect negatively on the school." Right. And suppressing the student voice looks great to prospective students.
Shooting the messenger
After MIT police officer Joseph D'Amelio was apprehended with more than 800 tablets containing the painkiller oxycodone, the Tech, MIT's student newspaper, naturally covered the drug-trafficking case. That didn't go over well with some other MIT boys in blue. On March 17, two officer colleagues of D'Amelio dumped 400 copies of The Tech into recycling bins (in 2009, at least we have environmentally conscious censors). In the school's defense, both officers were suspended without pay the next day, and MIT Police fired one of the officers in early April. Kudos to the scientists for protecting free speech against overbearing campus cops.
Not-so-quiet at Quinnipiac
The most theatrical student-newspaper-battle award goes, without a doubt, to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. In 2007, QU administrators imposed a policy on the official student newspaper, the Quinnipiac Chronicle, to not publish online material before the print edition. QU President John Lahey defended the prior review by reasoning that he wanted to read campus news "before the external world hears about it." After other editorial-control dust-ups — such as administrators' insistence on choosing the Chronicle's editorial staff — student-editors defected to the independent, online-only Quad News. How did QU react to its students' creative venture? A gag order was imposed on administrators, coaches, and athletes, barring them from speaking with the Quad News (administrators excused this as a routine "media requests" clearance policy). The crackdown went further: in September 2008, QU threatened to ban from campus the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), a media-advocacy organization with more than 200 student chapters, because of supposed "interactions and endorsements" with the Quad News. Administrators finally backed off their SPJ threat in October 2008, but not before QU incurred the wrath of the New York Times' editorial board, which wrote, "Instead of encouraging the students for their remarkable initiative, the school tried to retaliate against them for resisting its control and not toeing the line." Ironically, QU campus news had suddenly become editorial fodder for the "external world," which remains stubbornly resistant to being fooled by campus totalitarians.
Off the Ayer
Boston College students invited Bill Ayers, a former '60s Weather Underground activist, now an education professor, for a campus lecture in March. At first, administrators approved. But shortly after word of Ayers's appearance escaped the quiet Chestnut Hill campus via conservative talk radio, school officials canceled the event. A BC spokesman claimed that "an emotionally charged protest from the community" gave reason to fear for their oh-so-vulnerable undergrads' safety. This fuzzy rationale was tested when students proposed a satellite telecast of the lecture to the campus. Again, the administration balked. It wasn't until a WVBC student-radio program hosted Ayers nearly a month later that students were able to hear his "radical" ideas — like providing up-to-date textbooks for inner-city schools. Frustrated student organizers, such as the then-vice-president of the BC Democrats Melissa Roberts, told the Phoenix: "This became bigger than Bill Ayers. This became about academic freedom at BC and whether it extends to students." The answer, BC officials showed, was an unmistakable "no."
Harvey Silverglate is a Cambridge-based civil-liberties attorney and author. Kyle Smeallie assisted in writing this article.