On a campus that sees peaceful student protests spark overnight, has vocal student associations and multiple student press organizations, it seems unlikely that Cal State Long Beach would have a problem with free speech – but according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, we do.
FIRE announced its 2017 list of “America’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” last week, with CSULB ranked among the likes of Harvard University and the University of Oregon. The biggest complaint was the cancellation of the satirical play “N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK” last fall.
According to its mission statement, FIRE works “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” with those rights including freedom of speech.
Director Emeritus of the Center for 1st Amendment Studies at CSULB Craig Smith says he’s familiar with the organization.
“I think that they have bit of a misunderstanding about the difference between the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in public places, and academic freedom, which is guaranteed in the classroom,” Smith said.
He also said that he thinks CSULB doesn’t deserve a spot on the list because of the NWC incident.
“I think it’s unwarranted … it’s much more complicated than people were led to believe,” Smith said.
NWC is a controversial play performed by Asian-American, Hispanic-American and African-American actors who combine theater, stand-up comedy and personal stories “to take on racial slurs, stereotypes and the concept of race itself,” according to the play’s website.
The show had been performed at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in fall 2015 and was set to be performed again a year later. According to CSULB President Jane Close Conoley in an interview with the Daily 49er last semester, the show was presented to her as a part of a campus effort to inspire progressive dialogue among students and had been incorporated with the Chicano Latino Studies, American Indian Studies and other ethnic studies departments. As part of the curriculum, tickets were subsidized by the university to allow students discounted and free access to the play and it was this subsidy that Conoley had wished to cancel.
“[I don’t think it was censorship] because the university didn’t cancel it,” Smith said. “It was canceled by the head of the Carpenter Center as a kind of protest … the ethnic studies programs basically said it was amateurish, it didn’t serve its function and they were not going to recommend it to their students again and therefore the university said, ‘We’re not going to issue free tickets to students again.’”
FIRE has been publishing the list for the past five years with the help of their staff and attorneys, according to Nico Perrino, FIRE’s director of communications. They compile a list of all the cases submitted to them by students and faculty members on campuses, news reports from campus controversies, the cases they became involved in, including lawsuits and public advocacy campaigns, and start “whittling it down.”
“Some schools have more than one example of censorship on campus or threat to free speech on campus, those schools are of course given priority, other schools’ censorship is more egregious than other schools,” Perrino said.
They also consider if they have previously given the school a “spotlight” speech code rating. CSULB has one “red light” policy, five “yellow light” policies and three “green light” policies, according to FIRE’s website.
A “red light” rating means “the threat to free speech … is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied.” A “yellow light” rating means the school’s 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.” And a “green light” rating means the policies “do not seriously imperil speech.”
The policy that was given a red light is the sexual harassment policy in the general campus regulations that reads: “Sexual harassment is characterized as unwelcome, offensive attention, requests, invitations, innuendo and/or conduct of a sexual or suggestive nature. Such behavior can threaten or interfere with one’s ability to learn, participate or work. When exercised by a person in a position of authority, such as an instructor or supervisor, it can contaminate the learning or work environment and impede a person’s academic progress or work status.”
According to Perrino, what turns this policy red is the general terminology that can be used against people in instances that are protected by the first amendment.
“A university can’t write a sexual harassment policy, for example, and say that any sexual language that someone finds offensive is deemed sexual harassment, that would be overbroad and vague,” Perrino said “… merely saying that sexual harassment is ‘unwelcome conduct,’ that could be asking another student on a date, so long as that conduct or that speech is unwelcome.”
However, according to Smith, the policies on sexual harassment are passed down from the Chancellor’s Office to California State Universities.
“I think in this case, FIRE is overzealous,” Smith said. “The sexual harassment policy … is reviewed very carefully by the lawyers in the Chancellor’s Office. I think one of the ways to go with the whole business of sexual harassment is to make sure people understand what it is and what qualifies as sexual harassment.”
Following the incident, FIRE sent a letter to CSULB with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund and the university never responded to them or disputed the statements they made in the letter, according to Perrino.
“It seemed pretty clear that the president throttled this performance because of the content of the performance, it was perceived as such by the [then] executive director of the theater, Michelle Roberge, who resigned as a result of the president’s actions,” Perrino said.