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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Staff Editorial: Vague policies silence student groups

New policies don’t promote inclusion, they limit expression

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2024 print edition. You can find the digital version here

The Eagle’s editorial board is comprised of its staff but does not represent every individual staffer’s views. Rather, it provides an insight into how The Eagle, as an editorially-independent institution, responds to issues on campus. 

American University’s recent free speech restrictions have left students, clubs and organizations fearful of punishment and hesitant to act around vague policies. 

On Jan. 25, the University sent a community-wide email announcing three new policies attempting to address antisemitism, discrimination and hate on campus. The directives were put in place shortly after a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights by Jewish On Campus and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

The policies ban indoor protest, require student clubs to be welcoming to all students and mandate that posters and University-sponsored events promote inclusivity. On its face, these policies may not sound particularly harmful, but — beneath euphemistic language — these mandates censor political action and speech. 

The ban on indoor protest was seemingly a direct response to an AU Students for Justice in Palestine indoor protest in November, which was mentioned in the OCR complaint and which SJP alleged in a statement to The Eagle. This ban was the clearest of the policies, but the potential punishment for violation was only described as “disciplinary action.”

The second policy requires clubs to be welcoming to all students, but that is not exactly what the policy seeks to accomplish. When clubs and organizations are forced to only comment on topics directly connected to the group’s purpose, the concept of intersectionality is completely disregarded. How can clubs take stances or align themselves with a cause without excluding those who might disagree? Furthermore, the policy prevents clubs from making such statements on posters, which must now exclusively promote approved on-campus events. 

Student leaders across campus are now questioning what actions are and aren’t allowed. Some have felt pressure to self-censor to avoid possible punishments like the University revoking a club’s charter and funding. 

These policies sought to “support the sense of belonging on campus, promote safety, address the immediate challenges at hand, and help build broader community for all,” according to the University’s announcement. However, this blatant action against free speech makes it so student organizations cannot address the “immediate challenges at hand.” Broader community building is further harmed when cross-club coalitions are barred from expressing opinions on important issues. 

All of these mandates are legal because of American University’s status as a private university. Public universities, on the other hand, cannot so blatantly censor student speech because they are considered government institutions bound to the First Amendment. 

An Inside Higher Ed opinion piece from Jan. 5 argued that private universities should follow the First Amendment, not out of legal obligation but to protect productive discourse. “It seems that allowing students to debate hard topics within the broad — though not boundless — limits of the First Amendment may actually promote both education and order, two things sorely needed in these challenging times.” 

AU’s actions are supposed to promote education and order, but silencing student voices directly and through the policies’ vagueness accomplishes nothing.  

This piece was written by Jelinda Montes and edited by Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Ariana Kavoosi and Charlie Mennuti. 

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