When Student Free Speech and Campus Discipline Intersect

What rights do colleges have to police student speech?

Recently, a student posted a YouTube video that complained about Asian students making noise in the library while she was trying to study. The timing could not have been worse: the video hit the web the day after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Even though she took down the video within hours, by that time it had already made the rounds of sites like Gawker and Huffington Post, had produced parodies and remixes and the reactions to it were slowly filtering back to UCLA itself. At the same time, an crude email, that described a explicit way to describe and rate women that’s been circulating fraternity houses at USC also became public. Almost in one voice, the Internet was demanding that Something Must Be Done. But what? Rick Rojas of the Los Angeles Times asks what role should the universities play in these situations.

When news of the video reached the UCLA administrators, university Vice President for Student Affairs Michael L. Jackson responded with an open letter decrying its contents and the language of the video, saying that the message was at odds with the school’s values.

UCLA went a step further in responding to the anti-Asian video on its campus. Chancellor Gene Block sat down in the broadcast studio that the university recently constructed and made a statement condemning the student’s video. Block’s response was then posted on YouTube, the same place the controversy began.

While the debate continued to rage in the blogosphere, the University sought a more tempered response. UCLA students, faculty and administrators looked to use the incident as a start to conversations about diversity on campus. In a statement, Jackson called it the “dialogue rather than discipline” approach.

This approach might just be the only one open to schools confronted with similar situations. Although many called for the student’s expulsion, colleges and universities are often unwilling and frequently unable to act in such a way due to the student’s free speech rights. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says:

“Social media is teaching us, habituating us, to respond to speech with more speech…Although there was a push for the universities to discipline or even expel the students behind the controversies, schools are often limited in what they can do. However reprehensible a student’s words might be, their speech is protected by the First Amendment.”

In this case, the point is moot; the student who posted the video, Alexandra Wallace, has withdrawn from UCLA, citing threats. This might have been a pragmatic step, but there are some who disagree with it. Vice Provost for Student Affairs at Oregon University Larry D. Roper thinks she could have learned more from the experience had she chosen to stick it out:

“When a student does something like this, they are making a request in an awkward way…They are asking for the skills they need to navigate the world.”

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March 28th, 2011

Staff Reporter EducationNews.org

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