On January 18, the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against Kellogg Community College, charging it with violating the rights to free speech of two students. One, Michelle Gregoire, had been arrested, checked for weapons, and taken to jail.
In September, Gregoire, fellow student Brandon Withers, and two other young people were recruiting for Young Americans for Liberty, a pro-liberty campus group, at the college in Battle Creek, Michigan. They distributed pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution and asked students if they believed in freedom and liberty.
In doing so, they violated the college’s policies on solicitation; they hadn’t obtained a permit in advance, and they were speaking outside an established free-speech zone near the student center, the one part of the campus where students can exercise their First Amendment rights in accordance with the college’s policies.
They were told to stop, but when they said that they would continue, campus police were called. Three were arrested and jailed for trespassing. Gregoire, who is a mother of three children and also a nursing student, was checked for weapons. The others arrested were representatives of the Leadership Institute and the YAL group at Michigan State. All were released about seven hours later.
The Kellogg case is especially disturbing, because of the innocent nature of what the students were doing: defending freedom. But it is just one of a growing number of curtailments of free speech on campuses. A basic right is being violated at the whim of administrators. This is happening even though courts — including the Supreme Court — consistently uphold students’ constitutional rights to free expression on public campuses.
Many people think of college as a place to “find oneself,” to be exposed to different ideas, to challenge conventional wisdom. But college campuses are now blocking that experience.
For instance, student expression is often limited to “speech zones,” which can be minuscule. At Kellogg Community College, the zone was the student center. At Grand Valley State University, also in Michigan, the free speech zone represents about 0.02 percent of the university’s space.
Additionally, administrators can often choose which groups may speak. The suit against Kellogg claims a LGBT group was allowed to speak freely — but not the group distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution.
Why are such incidents becoming common? There are two reasons. First, for the first time in decades, administrators are deliberately shaping student opinion. Like most faculty, they lean left ideologically and often have more interaction with students than faculty do. At Kellogg, it was the director of student life who told Gregoire and her colleagues to stop speaking.
Robert Shibley, executive director of the watchdog group FIRE, thinks we are seeing the return of in loco parentis, the doctrine of most universities 60 years ago. Because parents had placed their children in the hands of university officials, it was deemed proper to set up rules to protect them. These rules typically included curfews and parietal hours (times during which men and women could be in the same dorm rooms).
Shibley explains, “For years the effort to develop moral character was sidelined, but now the administrators are happy to get into that role again. Without admitting it, colleges are again taking up ‘moral education,’ but the morals are different. And too many students seem to accept that paternalism.”
One example of the new in loco parentis is the increasingly adopted requirement — it’s official at Occidental College, a private college, and in all California public colleges — that any sexual activity (including fondling) be preceded by explicit, stated permission. This is known as the “yes means yes” rule. Failing to meet that standard could lead to prosecution for rape.
As if to confirm Shibley’s in loco parentis thesis, Drew Hutchinson, the director of student life at Kellogg, said he was stopping Gregoire and her colleagues because he wanted to protect unsophisticated students who might be unnerved by their questions.
There is, in addition, another reason for the kind of incident at Kellogg: poor or inaccurate teaching of American history.
Both administrators and students have little understanding of the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. Nor do they realize the Constitution and Bill of Rights represent a giant leap in the progress of political history toward freedom. That’s a clear and significant failing of college education.
Until schools bring back respect for inalienable rights and the role of the United States in protecting them, we will continue to see troubling examples of universities’ ignorance, just as we did when campus police at Kellogg Community College arrested students for peacefully handing out pocket-sized Constitutions.
Jane S. Shaw (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former president of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the higher education editor of School Reform News.