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Pitzer Students Address Free Speech on Campus

Free speech policies at the 5Cs are ambiguous and give too much arbitrary power to college officials, according to a student leader and national civil rights groups who gave the campuses a middling grade in ratings. Pitzer College Senate President Jonathan Rice PZ ’13 met with the Pitzer College Council two weeks ago to address these concerns regarding the free speech policies at Pitzer and the 5Cs as a whole.

Under California state law, private colleges and universities with no religious affiliation must give students full First Amendment rights, despite being privately owned and operated. Rice believes that the current policies at Pitzer and the other schools in the consortium are in conflict with this law.

“A lot of what I talk about is being proactive about policies that could be used by administrators to censor speech. And that’s what the idea is: A lot of the intentions behind speech codes are good,” Rice said. “But at the end of the day, this comes down to that they’re enforced by administrators, and enforced by real people.”

“What I worry about is when you have a really broad policy that 10, 20 years down the line, a different administrator can come in and read that and interpret it as, ‘I can use this to shut this student up,’” Rice added.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an independent group that advocates for individual rights and free speech at colleges across the country, has given all 5Cs a “yellow” rating, meaning that each college has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application,” according to the FIRE website.

This potentially open-ended wording in the schools’ speech policies is exactly what Rice is concerned about, specifically the language regarding bias-related incidents, policy concerning internet harassment, and the poster policy. The proposed changes would make clear that it is not Pitzer's intent to inhibit free speech and will specify that some bias-related incidents and offensive Internet speech are protected by the First Amendment. Faculty on the Council will form a committee before voting on whether to clarify what "offensive" speech entails.

“The policy doesn’t characterize what offensive means. It just says ‘offensive.’ What one administrator finds offensive could be very different from what a student finds offensive,” Rice said.

Rice is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Claremont Colleges (ACLU-CC), and though Rice started the initiative to approach Pitzer's administration, he has also been working with Miles Lifson CM '13, who has been involved in past ACLU-CC efforts with regards to the policies of Claremont McKenna College (CMC).

“I was involved in the ACLU-CC's effort to bring Greg Lukianoff, the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), to speak at CMC's Athenaeum. At the time CMC was rated a red-light by FIRE for having ‘at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,’” Lifson wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Shortly after Lukianoff's visit, CMC revised its policies and moved to the yellow-light category, putting it on par with the rest of the Claremont Colleges.”

The 5Cs have a unified code that concerns how the larger student community will be informed of bias-related incidents, which are defined as “expressions of hostility against another person (or group) because of that person's (or group's) race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of those characteristics.”

The code explicitly indicates that bias-related incidents are those deemed in violation of a college's disciplinary codes and not protected by the First Amendment. However, consortium policy makes the distinction that not all bias-related incidents will necessarily be determined to be of a criminal nature.

Miriam Feldblum, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Pomona College, stressed that the bias-related incident policy only applies in specific incidents.

“A couple years ago, students from another college wrote what Pomona students thought were nasty things, offensive things, on Walker Wall about Pomona College students. Someone asked, ‘Isn’t this a bias-related incident?’” Feldblum said. “But no, because the category of Pomona College student is not a protected category.”

Feldblum also stressed that for an incident to be classified as bias-related, it goes through a process involving an incident response team, which, according to the Pomona Student Handbook, “is composed of the Dean of Students, one or two staff members in Student Affairs, one or two members of the faculty, and a student representative chosen from the campus community.”

The 5Cs have slightly differing policies on student-designed campus postings, but each has some restrictions on what can be posted. Pomona, CMC, and Scripps College ban references to alcohol and illegal drugs on campus-wide postings. Additionally, each of the colleges reserves the right to screen campus postings for offensive content, either by review or removal.

The Pitzer Student Handbook states, “The Office of Student Affairs reserves the right to limit or stop distribution of publicity deemed offensive.”

As of yet, no institute of higher education in California has earned FIRE’s “green” rating, which signifies that the college has no policies that could be used to curb its students’ speech.

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