Thursday, January 10, 2013

Constitutional Controversies on Campus

January 7, 2013

Coming to school after a long and hopefully relaxing Christmas Break, talking about politics, law and freedom may seem to be kind of an agonizing prospect; perhaps not unlike being asked to do something unpleasant just after waking up without even the decency of a shower and a hot cup of coffee.
Oh, I meant to say “holiday” break.  There is, sadly, no escape from issues of free speech by hiding our heads in the sand during whatever ethnically, religiously and culturally neutral festive holiday you may or may not celebrate.  I actually tried it with snow, and while my ugly little igloo was sound-proof for the duration of the camping trip, it was hardly what you might call a sustainable practice for peace of mind.  And returning to school, we are once more confronted with these stubborn issues – the only difference is that we’re forced to be a bit more aware of them.  Ignorance is only bliss in the unenlightened short-term where such matters are concerned.
If you are lucky enough to be enrolled in a political science class, these problems may even affect you in the more visceral, offensive way it affected Bill Neel in early September, 2002.  President Bush was touring through Pittsburgh on Labor Day, where Neel was planning on greeting him with a sign that read, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.”  The local police created an ad-hoc “free speech zone” on a baseball field more than a quarter of a mile away, and ordered Neel and other wavers of critical signs to move (though supportive signs were, of course, perfectly acceptable outside this free-speech zone).  Neel was arrested for disorderly conduct when he refused to move.
Such was the case for students Marco Valdez, George Miller, Jon-Mycal Panattoni, Ally Mcgill and Kayla Jeppeson last quarter for their class Indecision 2012.  For their political action assignment, they chose to stage a protest of Bellevue College’s own free speech zone; outside of said free speech zone, of course.  Unfortunately, the students chose to start the protest by camping out overnight by the R-building, which violates a more mundane and perhaps more reasonable rule about the schools hours of operation.  When they talked to security about the possibility of future protests with better times however, things didn’t look any better – even during normal school hours, such activities must be confined to the so-called free-speech zone.
Do we lose our constitutional rights outside of the fountain plaza?
School is, and generally always has been, centered around the classroom.  Let’s face it: no one really cares that much about whatever group happens to be tabling or petitioning in front of the fountain around lunch time on any given day.  The threat is not that the administration won’t let you hold a sign saying you dislike Bush’s policies regarding poor people, but that they won’t let you hold that sign where it actually matters, and where you should be allowed to by the First and Fourth Amendments – that means in the classroom.  It’s condescending and evasive lip-service given to free speech, allowing people to say that they support free speech without actually having to.  You know you’re talking to one of these people when they say ‘I support free speech, except when…’
Valdez and his classmates started their protest primarily as a school project, but started to care more about the issue when they realized that they actually were, essentially, being censored, and that other students who wanted to make similar use of their intellectual freedom could be similarly silenced.  The problem isn’t that most students like the idea of these sorts of impositions on their rights: in a recent project for one of my own courses from last quarter called Techniques and Technology of Propaganda, all but a couple of the dozen or so students we interviewed supported absolute freedom of speech on campus, and said they would be extremely upset if they were limited in what they could hear or read, since when you silence one person, you simultaneously cut off everyone else’s ability to hear their ideas.  Two even said they’d rebel (violently!), if such censorship were revealed to be happening.
As Valdez and his group demonstrated, the problem isn’t attitude, but awareness of the state of things, and our present status quo’s adverse affect on not just student freedom, but the very education these rules were designed to protect.  When students can’t express themselves – when we’re so limited by unnecessarily stringent rules of conduct and Orwellian rules of political correctness that we can’t even ask difficult questions, education is adversely affected indeed.
In short, students need to follow the advice of Dr. Bernard Franklin – perhaps not to the extreme of overflowing the college sewer-system in protest, or yelling at the dean of the school from atop their own desk, but at least standing up for ourselves and demanding more for our money.  College, for most people, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth, education and intellectual stimulation, and it would be a personal and national tragedy for us to throw it away out of apathy or blissful ignorance.
For more information about the student protests against BC’s Free Speech zone, see “Students Protest Free Speech Zone” by Erin Hoffman on page 1.  To get involved, contact Marco Valdez at

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