If you want to single out a tipping point in the spread of anti-speech activity on campuses last year, look no further than the University of Oklahoma. In March 2015, a video emerged showing a busload of tuxedo-wearing Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members singing a racist chant. Within 48 hours of the video going public, OU president David Boren severed all ties with the fraternity and expelled two students identified as leading the chant. Imploring other administrators to adopt the same zero tolerance policy against racist speech, Boren vowed that OU would be “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue.” Unfortunately, he was right. Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) notes that “colleges have seized on the University of Oklahoma’s unconstitutional actions as a signal that they have an ‘all clear’ to toss free speech and basic fairness out the window.” Boren’s actions were both clearly unconstitutional and extremely popular—a dichotomy that we will see repeatedly among this year’s Muzzles. Most importantly, though, the OU expulsions set the bar for nearly every incident to come. Anything less than zero tolerance would be condemned by many campus communities as a tacit endorsement of exclusionary or inflammatory rhetoric.
As a private institution, Texas Christian University is not legally bound by the First Amendment. The school nevertheless claims to “firmly support the rights of all members of the University community to express their views.” In practice, however, TCU abandoned its commitment to free speech after one student’s comments on social media prompted complaints from a non-student in Maryland and her followers. TCU student Harry Vincent regularly used his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to comment on a variety of current events and topics including ISIS, protests in Baltimore, and global terrorism. These postings came to the attention of a woman in Maryland who, in an April 2015 Tumblr post, described Vincent’s commentary as “racist” and “disgusting.” The woman, identified online only as “Kelsey,” went on to encourage her followers to contact TCU and complain about the content of Vincent’s speech. Within 24 hours of Kelsey’s post, TCU charged Vincent with violating two provisions of the student conduct code: “Infliction of Bodily or Emotional Harm” and “Disorderly Conduct.” FIRE reports that prior to any determination of guilt, TCU officials ordered Vincent “to write a letter of apology for his posts and detail the punishment that he felt would be appropriate for his speech.” Vincent was ultimately suspended and placed on probation for the remainder of his time at TCU, during which he was barred from campus residence halls and all non-academic facilities, and prohibited from participating in any extracurricular activities. He was also required to attend sensitivity training, complete 60 hours of community service, and meet with university officials regularly until graduation. TCU administrators upheld the sanctions against Vincent in July 2015, but after the matter received widespread media attention, the school relented, reducing Vincent’s punishment to one year of probation, community service, and sensitivity training.
Like our previous example, the University of Tulsa is a private institution that, while not subject to traditional First Amendment constraints, still professes a commitment to free expression on campus. That commitment didn’t stop university administrators from suspending a student over someone else’s Facebook posts and threatening student reporters who wrote about the incident. Just two months before he was set to graduate with a theater degree from TU, George “Trey” Barnett was banned from campus for more than a year and informed that, should he return, the university would not issue him a degree in the major he was only 16 hours away from completing. The basis for these extraordinary sanctions was a series of Facebook posts written by Barnett’s husband, Chris Mangum. In the posts, Mangum criticized two TU theater professors and made disparaging remarks about the physical appearance of one of Barnett’s classmates. Each post originated from Mangum’s personal Facebook account but appeared on Barnett’s Facebook page where they were visible to others, including the professors and student in question. TU officials insisted that regardless of who wrote the posts, Barnett was “responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent further attacks against the University of Tulsa faculty and students on his Facebook page,” noting that the individuals discussed in the posts “expressed great distress, intimidation and dread at the mere thought of working alongside” him. Administrators then doubled down on their “commitment to free expression” by threatening editors of the school newspaper with disciplinary action if they continued to report on the incident. TU officials informed editors of The Collegian that aspects of their reporting constituted prohibited dissemination of confidential information. The school refused to elaborate on the nature of the confidentiality or to specify which documents might be subject to confidentiality. Furthermore, officials declined a request by the paper to identify a specific provision of the TU’s disciplinary policies that would be violated by publishing the information in question.
In addition to the examples described above, university-initiated efforts to limit student speech were also observed at the University of California, which encouraged a system-wide campaign to combat “microaggressions” on its campuses, and at Youngstown State, where administrators directed the removal of “straight pride” posters from around campus. At Old Dominion University, administrators promised “zero tolerance” in its investigation of banners hung from an off-campus fraternity house. On-campus use of the social media app Yik Yak was banned at Norwich Unviersity and Utica College, while a Colorado College student was suspended for a Yik Yak post claiming that black women are “not hot.” Kutztown University implemented a campus-wide ban on Confederate flag imagery, and George Washington University suspended a Jewish student for displaying a souvenir Indian swastika on his residential hall bulletin board. “Offensive” partying came under fire at the University of Mary Washington, where an entire rugby team was suspended for singing a bawdy song, and at UCLA, where a “Kanye Western” themed party led to the suspensions of the fraternity and sorority that hosted it. Finally, campus police were keeping a close eye on speakers last year. At the University of Missouri, officers encouraged the reporting of any incidents of “harmful or hurtful” speech, while at the University of Oregon, police warned a street preacher who had been harassed on campus against making any future statements that might upset students.