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PSU gets mixed review on free speech

The University Park campus is getting good marks from students for its allowance of freedom of speech. It hasn’t always made the grade, however, and some of its policies are still under the critical eye of constitutional watchdog groups.

PSU gets mixed review on free speech

By Jessica Beard

The University Park campus is getting good marks from students for its allowance of freedom of speech. It hasn’t always made the grade, however, and some of its policies are still under the critical eye of constitutional watchdog groups.

On a brisk Thursday in September, the Penn State Atheist/Agnostic Association held an event on the HUB patio called “Stone an Atheist.” There were no stones. However, club members provided water balloons—two for a dollar—for students to pelt them, with proceeds going to Village Reach, a nonprofit group that provides health care in developing countries.

Several members of the Penn State Atheist/Agnostic Association held posters proclaiming “Stone an Atheist!” in bright bubble letters.

Club treasurer Noah Orris held a poster covered in the Leviticus passage of the Bible from which the club took its subversive inspiration; “And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him.”

“We’ve been pretty blessed with this campus,” said club president Nick Shaff. “We’ve had no problems besides the occasional student flipping us off.”

“But it’s nice that they can exercise their freedom of speech, too,” said club secretary Daniel McGill.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) website, FIRE is a watchdog group whose mission statement is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” FIRE includes freedom of speech and religious liberty among “the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them”.

FIRE uses its ‘Spotlight System’ as a database that profiles how American academic institutions stack up in their protection of individual liberties. It also keeps case files of instances of repression or potential abuse. The Spotlight System features a free speech policy code rating rubric which uses a traffic light to indicate whether an institution’s policies are good (green), mediocre (yellow), or bad (red).

The Event Management Office enforces Policy AD51. Registered student organizations and University-affiliated groups of ten or more students, faculty or staff apply to reserve space at the Event Management Office.

According to Brouse, the policy for reserving locations is written to accommodate guarantees of space.

FIRE gives Penn State a yellow light for Policy AD51, ‘Use of Outdoor Areas for Expressive Activities’. According to the Penn State Policy Manual, Policy AD51 “is applicable to University students, faculty, staff and others who wish to engage in speaking, literature distribution, poster or sign displays, petitioning and similar noncommercial activities (generally referred to as ‘expressive activity’) at outdoor locations on University property.”

According to FIRE’s Spotlight guidelines, a “‘yellow light’ institution is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

FIRE improved Penn State’s rating from a red light to a yellow light in 2009. Then-president, Graham Spanier, agreed to revise the Penn State Principles preamble after William Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, wrote a letter to Spanier. The letter cited “impermissibly vague terms” and stated that “the fact that a student seemingly may be punished for ‘demeaning the dignity’ of others means that engaging in wide swaths of constitutionally

protected expression may serve as grounds for punishment.”

FIRE staff member Samantha Harris commented that Penn State was “playing with maintaining a policy that so clearly violates what the Third Circuit [federal court] has said—on multiple occasions—about the extent to which schools may restrict student speech in the name of preventing harassment.”

Penn State is under the jurisdiction of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the letter, FIRE cited two 3rd Circuit decisions which “unequivocally established the unconstitutionality of campus speech codes.” The first was Saxe v. State College Area School District, which struck down a high school’s harassment policy when the court found it unconstitutionally broad in its definition of “offensive content.”

The DeJohn v. Temple University ruling then specified that college administrators have even less license to regulate student speech than elementary and high school administrators.

The letter also cited several First Amendment U.S. Supreme Court cases in its appeal to change the policy’s language, including the landmark Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. Creeley pointed out that in this case, “the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects even the most “blatantly ‘ridiculing’ speech.” In Hustler, it was “a cartoon suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity in a drunken encounter with his mother in an outhouse.”

“This blatantly ‘ridiculing’ speech is protected under the First Amendment, and such expression likewise must be protected at Penn State. Penn State is free to criticize such expression but is bound not to punish or prohibit it,” Creeley said.