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Free speech privatized

Students and faculty are confused following new policies and pattern of free speech suppression on campus

American University’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement is no stranger to protesting the AU administration. 

The organization led a march inside the atrium of the School of International Service building on Dec. 1.  

Members draped the building’s balconies in orange banners reading “REFUSE FOSSIL FUEL MONEY” and “WILL YOU STAND WITH US?” Meanwhile, students and professors filled the space with signs, chants, songs and speeches demanding professors refuse research grants and funding from fossil fuel executives.

President of Sunrise Movement AU and sophomore in the School of Public Affairs Julia Leland said the protest was extremely powerful.

“The School of International Service is where everyone can be seen and everyone will be highlighted,” Leland told The Eagle. “It’s just [a] great visual … where we have students all the way up top holding the banners. We have students gathered on the floor. It’s where everyone can be seen in our movement.”

The group is not only outspoken about climate justice, it also contributes to other social discussions on campus. In October, the organization postponed its “fossil-free day of action” to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

But with the Jan. 25 announcement by President Sylvia Burwell and other administrators — which banned indoor protests and required clubs to “promote inclusivity” — Sunrise Movement and other organizations are worried about how far the University will go to regulate speech.    

“Telling us what we can and cannot say in regards to that is extremely dangerous,” Leland said. “It’s censorship and prevents us from fighting for the issues that we are fighting for.” 

In the email, administrators wrote that these changes aim to create a safe environment on campus and safeguard against antisemitism. 

Several organizations were quick to respond with their own statements criticizing the new policies. Among those groups was the chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace based at AU, which said the policies unfairly equate anti-Zionist activism on campus to antisemitism. The AU Coalition for Palestine released a statement cosigned by 18 student clubs and AU-based organizations that condemned the email and said the policies infringe on student voices. 

“We call on all students to stand against AU’s clear move to suppress freedom of thought and speech on our campus,” the statement read. 

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and the subsequent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, student demonstrations have erupted at colleges nationwide. With more civic demonstrations, campuses struggle to balance commitments to free expression while maintaining productive learning environments.

Several private universities began regulating student groups and demonstrations. George Washington University, Brandeis University and Columbia University banned their respective chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine from their campuses. Columbia University also suspended its student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Other universities have put similar regulations in place and condemned student protests.

Campus confusion 

In the wake of the policies, some AU student organizations are left asking: what constitutes protest and inclusivity? 

Leland raised concerns about the policies for their vague definition of “inclusivity” and when clubs violate them. Clubs particularly expressed confusion about what it means to be inclusive.

“If we are told that [race and class] are not directly tied to our mission because the administration deems it as such, that's extremely dangerous,” Leland said. “We are being told that we’re perpetuating a lot of harm because we’re not inclusive. It’s not inclusive to exclude marginalized groups from our movement.”

In a guest column, SJP wrote that Burwell told their leadership clubs cannot make political statements if the subject is not related to the club’s stated mission. 

Claire McCafferty, the campaign chair of the AU Young Democratic Socialist Association chapter, said her organization has had frequent conversations about the policies. 

“There is no explanation for what counts as protest indoors like [could I] have a pin on my backpack that somebody doesn’t like, and that then counts as a protest indoors,” McCafferty, a sophomore in SPA, said. “If we’re fostering that kind of learning environment, nobody is going to thrive.” 

The language of the policies also leaves questions about repercussions for those who violate it, John Watson, an associate professor in the School of Communication, said.

Megan Gayken, a first-year advisor and an AU staff union representative, said that protests need to disrupt the status quo to be effective. 

“We need to be able to express our needs and positions on issues, without having the threat of having our jobs at [risk], if we have broken a code or policy,” Gayken said. “So it’s no longer freedom of speech if our jobs are at risk if we’re speaking out and telling the administration the ways in which they’re failing us as staff.”

How AU approaches free speech policy 

AU formed the Working Group on Freedom of Expression in 2021 to refine its freedom of speech policy, last revised in 2016. After meeting for over a year, the group made recommendations that advised AU’s Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct policy. 

Acting Provost and Chief Academic Officer Vicky Wilkins announced a new working group in a campus-wide email on Feb. 5. The new working group will evaluate how the protest and poster regulations intersect with the University’s commitments to free expression. 

The group is set to produce a memo with its recommendations at the end of this academic year.

In a statement to The Eagle, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Matt Bennett confirmed the group is “expected to complete its work on schedule.”

Watson, who specializes in First Amendment law, said he was asked to participate in the initial 2021-22 working group. He left after attending for over a year. Watson said that while he was invited to join the group to offer a critical perspective of existing policies, his perspective was not represented in the material produced. He said he left feeling “very upset” and that the group was “a sham.”

Watson also said he is pessimistic about what the reconvened working group will produce.

“Although I recognize that, as a matter of public relations, they absolutely needed to form a new working group, if it functions the way the first one did, then I don’t see any change coming out of it,” he said.

Lara Schwartz, a senior professional lecturer in SPA and director of the Project on Civic Dialogue, formerly the Project on Civil Discourse, was also part of the 2021-22 working group when it first convened.

In December 2023, Schwartz agreed to join the new group after being told it would not be in charge of changing AU’s free expression policies. The request to reconvene the group cited “several specific controversies [that] have arisen” that raised questions about existing policies.

In a February email, she told Wilkins and Burwell that she had decided to leave the group.  

“I am concerned that my presence on the committee will be interpreted as agreement with the premise animating its reconvening: that current events, whether on campus or globally, warrant revisiting or revising our free expression policies. They do not,” she wrote. 

Different rules, different schools

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, also known as FIRE, sent a letter to Burwell on Feb. 9 condemning the new policies. The organization said these policies undermine how the University “leads students and faculty to reasonably interpret” that they have protections that align with the First Amendment. It demanded a response from the University by Feb. 23. 

The University did not meet the deadline, but Bennett said they intend to respond.

The First Amendment applies to government suppression of speech, not to private organizations like AU. While public educational institutions overseen by state governments are limited in how they can restrict expression on campus, private institutions have no such limits, even though the University receives federal funding.

“Public universities have a legal obligation to adhere to the law,” Brian Westley, an adjunct professor in SOC and content counsel for Axios, told The Eagle. “Private universities don’t have the same obligations, although many private universities take the issue of free speech very seriously and are very much aligned with public universities on sort of how they respect expression. That’s mostly based on this idea of academic freedom.”

Fitting free speech to private universities 

Westley said in the last decade discussion around free speech has changed. 

“Part of this is just the struggle to figure out where the line is,” he said. “Speech that marginalizes may not cross that line, so at least under the First Amendment principles that apply to public schools it would be allowed — even though that may cause a lot of pain for people. Private schools have more leeway because, again, they’re not bound by the First Amendment.” 

For some, this is a question of academic freedom and integrity.

“If we don’t have the ability to approach any question with complete freedom to inquire and explore it, I don’t think we can be a college now,” Schwartz told The Eagle. “That kind of freedom, it’s inherent in being a college.”

Watson said he doesn’t think universities should draw from the first amendment to craft their policies, because it was designed to be a check on the federal government’s power. 

Instead, he said, regulations on speech can be necessary at universities to facilitate the goals of education. Those goals, according to Watson, are to teach students how to learn quickly and how to treat people with respect. 

He said that AU’s policies do not achieve that goal.

“At the very heart of this, there may have been an effort to maintain a respectful community,” Watson said. “But, as you begin cutting away people’s freedoms, you have to do it with a very sharp and sensitive scalpel. They did it poorly, with a sledgehammer and not much thought at all. I think it’s the worst free speech policy I have ever seen.”

Support for the policies

The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and advocacy organization Jewish on Campus filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint said that AU has created a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students that violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It cites repeated antisemitic vandalism on AU’s campus, disputes over posters that depicted images of Israeli hostages and a pro-Palestine demonstration inside SIS on Nov. 9 –– which the complaint says interfered with classes.  

Some students who have voiced support for AU’s new policies say that, given rising tensions on campus, the University acted in the interest of student safety.

“They can [protest] on the quad, they can do it at Capitol Hill, they can do it in front of the White House, they can do it in places that aren’t violating the academic freedom of Jewish and Israeli students,” SIS sophomore Noam Emerson-Fleming, the president of the Jewish Student Association and a leader for the pro-Israel student organization AmeriPAC, told The Eagle. “All that people are saying is you can’t harass people and create an unsafe environment in academic buildings where people are going to get their degrees and go to class. I think that’s reasonable.”

Campus speech in the past

Many students and organizations say that suppression of speech has been a consistent trend on AU’s campus. 

Most recently, AU SJP wrote in a statement to The Eagle that the policies were a response to protests the club organized.

“AU has been dangerously restricting student speech on campus when it comes to talking about Palestine,” AU SJP wrote. “We have witnessed new policies pop up in direct response to SJP actions, which include repressing protests and coalition-building.”

“The directives were implemented to address challenges facing our community, support safety, and assist with students’ sense of belonging,” Bennett wrote in response. “The directives were developed for the whole community and apply equally to student organizations.”

Lillian Frame, an AU alumna, said the University prevented her speech when organizing walkouts protesting sexual violence on campus.  

Frame said that the email she and fellow organizers created for the walkouts was barred from emailing to AU addresses. When they tried to send emails to AU addresses, they were met with a “Message blocked” notification. 

“We are unaware of any issues regarding email delivery in this matter,” Bennett wrote.

FIRE has also previously filed multiple claims against the University on students’ behalf.

In 2002, FIRE filed a claim when AU punished an undergraduate student for filming a public speech by Tipper Gore citing multiple student policy violations, namely theft of intellectual property.

They filed another claim in 2015, when the then-Office of University Center & Student Activities didn’t officially recognize the group Students for Rand — an organization dedicated to supporting Sen. Rand Paul in the 2016 presidential election — on the basis that the organization had a “national election campaign focus,” which it claimed it could not support under federal law as a tax-exempt nonprofit institution. The decision was eventually overturned by University administrators.

In 2022, AU’s Office of Equity and Title IX investigated eight law students who disagreed about the leaked Dobbs v. Jackson decision with a Christian classmate in a group chat. The Christian student reported the group claiming religious discrimination and the other students were notified that they were being investigated. FIRE then filed a complaint on the investigated students behalf.

Also in 2022, The Eagle opened a case with FIRE when the University implemented barriers for student journalists trying to talk to staff, faculty and student workers.

Now what?

The politically-active community at AU is reckoning with what these limitations might mean for the University’s future; both on the quad and in the classroom. 

Schwartz said she will continue to advocate for the protection of free expression on campuses, believing it to be an essential value of higher education.

Leland said she wants to see a change to the policies because they limit her organization’s ability to function.

“We are about challenging power-makers and decision-makers, and when we don’t have the freedom to do that, we can’t do anything,” Leland said. 

Multiple organizations echoed the desire to keep pushing the envelope at a school that values change-makers. 

“People in power are not going to make changes or adjust what they're doing if they're able to just see a protest happen, dismiss it and keep going,” Gayken said. “If they’re not being put in a position where something they value is disrupted, they're not going to respond.” 

“We’re supposed to be the new changemakers, and we’re supposed to be developing critical thinking skills and expressing our opinions and challenging ideas,” Leland said. “When we’re not able to do that, especially on the organizational front, we cannot be a university that functions.”

Visit The Eagle's YouTube channel to view a short documentary about this article.

Editor’s Note: SOC professor John Watson serves as a faculty advisor to The Eagle. He is not involved in any of The Eagle’s editorial decisions, including reporting, writing and editing. 

This story was edited by Kathryn Squyres, Zoe Bell, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Romy Hermans, Ariana Kavoossi and Charlie Mennuti.

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