Imagine if the government could silence you before you have a chance to speak because officials think someone might be offended or resort to disruption or violence. It might sound insane that others’ potential feelings or actions mean you have to shut up, but that’s the reality for students at a university here in the Granite State.
Southern New Hampshire University mandates that student groups run all invited speakers by university administrators to weed out those who may cause controversy. The administration gives itself sole discretion to turn down speakers who may “draw unwanted demonstrations” to campus.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, where I work, is demanding that SNHU rescind this requirement because it prevents members of the campus community from freely expressing themselves and from engaging with speakers that the university bans.
To be clear, SNHU is a private school not required to promise students free expression. But when colleges do make those promises by way of university policy—as SNHU does—they must live up to them. When students invite speakers to campus, their association with the speaker constitutes expression. When universities create viewpoint and content-based barriers for students to invite speakers to campus, they restrict students’ rights to free expression, breaking promises made to students who choose to enroll.
SNHU cannot speak out of both sides of its mouth, guaranteeing respect for students’ expressive rights while obstructing those same rights when speech is contentious. However, that’s exactly what administrators did. Their response to FIRE claims the university “seeks to promote and facilitate the exchange of innovative and diverse ideas,” but states the university is “confident” that its policies don’t violate the law or infringe the free flow of ideas. As we told SNHU in response, “expression is not free when authorities must approve of the speakers and viewpoints expressed.”
When institutions shut down free speech, they encourage detractors to disrupt campus in the future, because they know it has worked in the past. This concept is known as the “heckler’s veto” — a form of mob censorship in which officials shut down expression due to actual disruption or the threat of disruption.
Of course, SNHU must balance free speech with safety. Shouldn’t a university punish those who react to speech with violence and misconduct rather than those who seek to speak peacefully? That is precisely the problem with SNHU’s required review of invited speakers. It cannot unilaterally block broad swaths of political speech under the guise that allowing the speech would sacrifice campus safety. Expression and the free flow of ideas must be encouraged on campus—not restricted.
FIRE rated four New Hampshire universities based on the extent to which their policies restrict students’ right to free expression: Keene State College, Plymouth State College, University of New Hampshire, and Dartmouth College. The rated public schools all earn FIRE’s highest “green light” for free speech. However, Dartmouth—which has faced FIRE’s ire recently for shutting down a student group’s event—earned a “yellow light” rating, meaning it has at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application. Good policies are the first step to ensuring students may speak freely on campus—a goal all universities should strive to achieve.
SNHU must bring its policies in line with its strong commitment to students’ expressive rights. It should do that not only when legally required to do so, but also because it’s morally obligated to promote a culture of free expression on campus. That’s the beauty of free speech: Speakers whose views may not be commonplace can share their opinions with others and learn from each other without fear of being silenced.
FIRE stands ready to help SNHU, and all other speech-restrictive institutions, bring its policies in line with its commitment to free expression. Officials must stop acting as if free speech hinders a community. Instead, they must acknowledge that it strengthens a community by allowing its members to freely exchange ideas, both controversial and popular, and by allowing those from different backgrounds to gather to learn from one another’s viewpoints.
To make this vision a reality, SNHU must end its prior review of invited speakers and the censorship that comes with it.