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University attacked by rights group

May 04, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Noteworthy figures have spoken at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania - Dick Cheney, Jesse Jackson, Desmond Tutu. Students and faculty regularly share ideas and debate issues, according to a school official and the student body president.

Yet, a group called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has labeled Shippensburg with a red C - for censorship.

After a national study of campus codes of conduct, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education - FIRE, for short - sued the university last month, alleging that it has an onerous speech and behavior code that clamps down on students' freedoms.

FIRE also attacked Shippensburg's policy of delineating two zones on campus for students to hold rallies or protests.

"They turn the rest of the campus into censorship zones," said Greg Lukianoff, the legal director for FIRE, which is based in Philadelphia.

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The lawsuit shocked the university.

"It just literally came out of nowhere," Peter Gigliotti, Shippensburg's executive director for university communications and marketing, said. "The question is: Why us?"

FIRE has spent about three years researching speech codes.

Although FIRE alleges that about two-thirds of the colleges and universities in the country have some type of speech code, the group is basing that on a small subset that it has reviewed.

Emmett Hogan of FIRE said the group decided to check 287 schools, covering the top 50 liberal arts colleges, the top 50 research colleges and others, including at least two colleges from each state. By last week, FIRE had reviewed about 270, Hogan said.

Shippensburg, which has about 6,500 undergraduate students and 1,000 graduate students, was chosen as a defendant, Lukianoff said, because "it's the most representative of the speech codes we found."

"We do not have a speech code," Gigliotti countered. "We have a code of conduct."

The preamble to Shippensburg's 2002-2003 Code of Conduct says, "Students, as members of the academic community, are encouraged to engage in a sustained, critical, and independent search for knowledge."

The university supports that cause as long as the means are not "inflammatory, demeaning, or harmful toward others."

FIRE filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Scranton, Pa., on April 22 on behalf of two unnamed Shippensburg students, John Doe and Jane Doe.

The university has until May 15 to respond.

FIRE hopes to sue, over the next year, schools in each of the 12 federal appellate circuits, "establishing precedents that will end the scandal of unconstitutional speech codes on college and university campuses once and for all," according to the group's Web site.

In the Shippensburg suit, John Doe is described only as a junior earth-science major and Jane Doe as a senior political science major.

Each is characterized as a member of a "politically-interested expressive student organization" who fears being sanctioned for discussing certain social, cultural, political or religious views.

Student Senate President Ryan Hess, a sophomore political science major, believes FIRE has put its own "spin" on the truth. There would be no such retaliation, he said.

Hess has heard of no complaints about censorship, real or implied.

"Students know free speech is going on constantly at this university," Hess said.

"We've never sanctioned anyone" for what they said, Gigliotti said.

"We have not had any issues," he said. "Usually, redress is because someone took action. It's just the opposite.

"We feel it's a critical component that (students) have the opportunity to express themselves freely. There is not a taboo topic. Nothing is sacrosanct. It's part of the university's goal."

Lukianoff would not comment on whether FIRE recruited the plaintiffs or whether the university code was ever used against them for something they said or did.

FIRE's lawsuit alleged that Shippensburg's codes are "vague, overbroad, discriminate on the basis of religious and/or political viewpoint, interfere with the right of free association, impose unconstitutional conditions on the receipt of state benefits, and constitute an illegal prior restraint on the Plaintiffs' rights of free speech and assembly."

Instead of a speech code, "the First Amendment provides excellent guidelines ...," Lukianoff said. "The university can have an opinion on speech, just like anyone else. But very often, it ends up written in a way that people can be punished."

Gigliotti said Shippensburg's guidelines reflect standards common in any municipality in America, on campus or off campus.

One premise is that harassment is forbidden. A heated argument is OK, but a death threat is not, and that concept is what the student code addresses, he said.

Also, rallies must be held in places that don't interfere with daily activities.

That way, "you don't have to walk through picketers to get to class," Gigliotti said.

Although the university will "vigorously" defend its code, Gigliotti said, the national publicity over the lawsuit "has been, in one way, a good thing. It's encouraging more debate."

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