Column: Fighting censorship on campus

“History of Hatchet April Fools'” (April 8, p. 4) omits at least one attempted incident of administrative censorship by intimidation, and misstates (as least as I remember it) another – with continuing consequences to the current Hatchet.

Several years ago a parody of a dean in the April Fools’ issue led to a proceeding in which the University was threatening to expel several student editors of The Hatchet only a month or so before they were due to graduate. Asked for my help, I told the editors that I had a binding legal engagement at the time their expulsion hearing was scheduled.

Nevertheless, I persuaded the student editors of the Law School’s newspaper to stand in for me (as attorneys in training) until I arrived, and to argue lack of due process in violation of the “Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities.” By the time I arrived, the University had virtually given up, and the student editors went on to graduate. Here’s an example of how a good campus code can be used to protect free speech and academic freedom.

In 1992, Allen Weingold, GW vice president for Medical Affairs, tried to permanently stop The Hatchet from using the Medical Center’s facilities for distributing its newspaper because of several humorous references to Medical Center people in its April Fools’ issue. He argued that the right of student organizations to peacefully distribute materials did not apply to the Medical Center because it is a “self-supporting” entity, and he did not “consider us to be part of the University.”

To test the legality of the ban, I joined several student editors from The Hatchet in distributing the paper on Medical Center property under the noses of the University Police. This came after I pointed out to Dr. Weingold that his order was in blatant violation of the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, and that the Medical Center was in fact part of the University. I had also formally advised him that he might be held personally liable in a lawsuit. To no one’s great surprise, he backed down and did not attempt to stop us from distributing the paper. This is a second example of how a good campus code can protect free speech and academic freedom.

Following that, I was never told, as last week’s column reported, that “the (distribution) ban was written into The Hatchet contract for independence.” Also, although The Hatchet column laments that “the prohibition will stand until that contract is renegotiated,” this isn’t necessarily true. The contract does not prevent ordinary students or faculty from distributing The Hatchet anywhere on campus, including buildings used by the Medical School – a right that is guaranteed to us. Therefore I will be happy to join with non-Hatchet students concerned about free speech and academic freedom next year in distributing the April Fools’ issue – in which I have frequently been parodied – to medical school students.

In the meantime, I encourage students to pick up stacks of The Hatchet and drop them off in buildings frequented by medical students. Medical students are an important part of the University and deserve to have easy notice of campus events and developments.

The moral of the story: There is no right not to be offended, but those who want to be free to engage in speech which others might find offensive have to be vigilant, and be prepared to resist all attempts by the administration to restrict free speech and academic freedom in the guise of political correctness.

-The writer is a professor of public interest law.

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