The Campus "Free Speech" Deception · 13 November 2007

By Orit T. Sklar - FrontPageMagazine.com

Despite what Lee Bollinger and his Leftist ilk would have us think, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit did not improve the dire state of free speech and academic freedom at Columbia University because his invitation to the present-day Hitler did not occur in a vacuum. Today’s university presidents and administrations take pride in their efforts to manufacture policies, plan activities, and fund projects that welcome the Ahmadinejads of the world, while barring the ROTC and the Minutemen. While Columbia’s actions outraged millions, countless universities across the country hold less publicized – but equally abhorrent – events and programs that are leading to the degradation of America’s once-esteemed university system.

When I received an official email from the Georgia Institute of Technology Dean of Students announcing a campus forum called “How Free is Your Speech on Campus?” sponsored by Finding Common Ground I was momentarily encouraged. Was Finding Common Ground, an official Georgia Tech program initiated by President G. Wayne Clough, finally going to tackle an issue brought up over a year ago as a result of a lawsuit for free speech and religious liberty on campus?

I attended the event, and from the start it was evident that this “free speech forum” was going to be like all the ones before it – administrators dodging questions and creating a greater sense of confusion about the policies, and students leaving thinking that they would be typecast as pariahs by their peers and administrators if they stood up for free speech. Not wasting any time, a student asked the moderator, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, a question regarding the effects of the lawsuit towards the beginning of the program. The moderator claimed no knowledge of the suit and moved on to a tangential topic.

It is hard to believe that the moderator, a First Amendment and academic freedom “specialist” and author of a forthcoming book on campus speech, knew nothing about what may be the most prominent current higher education lawsuit in the country. But then again, the Technique – Georgia Tech’s student newspaper – also glosses over the problems, summarizing the event with the proclamation that, “Tech does not have a particular reputation for stepping on students’ rights.”

Either the editors of the paper missed this “minor” detail or they adequately served their role as a mouthpiece of the Institute’s administration, which obviously believes in sweeping problems under the rug. In March 2006, Ruth Malhotra and I filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Institute challenging four unconstitutional policies. Time and again we had been censored, stifled, and intimated by Institute officials simply for expressing our opinions on public issues. Our mainstream conservative ideas were treated with hostility and contempt by administrators who saw our expressive activities as hurdles to their own programs and favored groups highlighting their narrow political and personal agendas. Instead of addressing the central issues of the case or even trying to inspect their policies objectively, Georgia Tech remains loyal to these unconstitutional policies that continue to detrimentally impact students. Nothing will change as long as the Institute maintains that the policies are acceptable. The September 7th Technique reported the ridiculous conclusion of a constitutionally-challenged administration: “Members of the GSS [Graduate Student Senate] met with Office of Legal Affairs and their consensus was that the policy was fine.” I’m sure it was.

As if things couldn’t get worse, President Clough has been using his power, time and school resources to further develop Finding Common Ground, an initiative that was started in response to our lawsuit.

According to the Finding Common Ground website (www.fcg.gatech.edu):

 

The students of Georgia Tech created Finding Common Ground in 2006 for the purpose of initiating a continuing culture of dialogue to ensure the inclusion of as many voices as possible in discussions of issues that affect both the campus community and society at large.

According to meeting minutes from an Executive Board meeting from August 2006, Clough proposed, “We will initiate a program called “Finding Common Ground”. We want people to be able to express their views and to know that it is OK to disagree as long as they respect others’ right to express their views.”

Does this sound like free speech to you? The first part – maybe – but the qualifier tells the true tale of censorship. It is clear that there is an inherent and fundamental flaw in the understanding of the First Amendment that has led to a lack of respect for students’ right to free expression. Nowhere in the First Amendment do we find an “as long as no one gets their feelings hurt clause.” It is a contortion of reality that thrives on college campuses, enabling administrators to intimidate students and further promote their own one-sided agenda in the name of “respecting others’ views.”

Is this a source of fulfillment and pride for a university president? In a subsequent meeting of the Executive Board on November 21, 2006, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and Academic Affairs, Dr. Anderson Smith, made remarks on behalf of the President and said that the “President is pleased and excited about the success of the Finding Common Ground event.”

For the president to be thrilled with Finding Common Ground’s work, the initiative must have had a tremendous impact on campus. In reality, Finding Common Ground in its inaugural year only consumed Institute resources without coming close to breaking even. The first Finding Common Ground events included a program called GT Listens, three communications training sessions, and a speech by Maya Angelou, who highlighted “diversity” and spoke about her life. Angelou’s visit was such a high priority for President Clough that he even canceled his deposition in our lawsuit in order to participate. At the end of the day, Georgia Tech spent $100,000 on this program they started in response to the lawsuit, but they have failed to address the merits of the case, even when they are specifically asked about it. Funding for Finding Common Ground came from a variety of resources including the Student Government Association, – student activity fees – the Residence Hall Association, Georgia Tech Student Foundation, Auxiliary Services’ BuzzFunds – profits from the Buzz Trademark, and the Alumni Association Parents Fund.

This year Finding Common Ground is hosting three “Taboo Topics” forums, a scavenger hunt, meal discussion groups, a mural project, and a speaker. Finding Common Ground has ambitious goals and a host of projects lined up for this year. How many more Institute resources are they going to pour into this program? Within one month of the new fall semester, Finding Common Ground had already received $10,000 from Student Government Association to be spent on facilitators, as reported in the September 7th Technique.

The glaring double-standard of free speech on campus rears its ugly head in the use of student activity fee appropriation as well. While Finding Common Ground receives large amounts of student activity fees, how many student groups are being denied or scared away because of a policy that bans the funding of religious and political activities? If Finding Common Ground can receive thousands of dollars for facilitators to hold programs, such as "Cultural Pride: Uniting or Dividing" than maybe Geaux to the Gulf, a charitable rebuild project in Louisiana sponsored by Campus Christian Fellowship, would not have to be put through the wringer – forced to explain that no religious activities would go on and that all students were welcomed to volunteer regardless of religion – every time they requested money for travel expenses.

It is obvious that university presidents are faced with making many difficult decisions and must balance a busy schedule. The school’s integrity and students’ well-being and constitutional rights should top their list of priorities. With academic freedom lawsuits being filed from coast to coast, the public is finally learning about the egregious treatment of students on campus both within and outside the classroom. In some cases, university presidents have used their position to ensure that the school comes out on top and remains an icon of academic excellence and a highly desirable destination.

In October 2006, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Emily Brooker who as a student at Missouri State University was persecuted by the school’s social work department for not signing a letter that was going to be sent to the state legislature in support of homosexual adoption. Within two weeks, the university settled and President Michael T. Nietzel launched an internal investigation into the department.

In December 2006 at the University of Georgia, the ADF and the Christian Legal Society filed suit on behalf of a Christian fraternity that was kicked off campus for discriminating on the basis of religion. President Michael Adams and the administration treated the situation with the appropriate gravity and within one day reinstated the group’s status and pledged to review their policy.

In May 2007 at the University of Colorado – Boulder, Professor Ward Churchill’s career of academic fraud was brought to a halt when President Hank Brown recommended his termination. President Brown’s decisive action was validated in July 2007 when the Board of Regents concurred. President Brown did what was right in order to encourage, preserve, and protect professional integrity and standards.

Now if only Georgia Tech President, G. Wayne Clough, would take notice of the commendable actions of these three leaders. Perhaps then this 18-month-old lawsuit could finally be resolved to the satisfaction of the U.S Constitution.

Finding Common Ground reeks of political correctness and a social agenda meant to further scare students away from expressing their opinions freely. These programs are designed to make the university appear as if they are actively addressing problematic situations on campus, but instead they make a mockery of the school and never come close to achieving solutions.

The problems are vast and what appear to some as isolated incidents are simply one symptom of a systemic problem plaguing many universities. They are not all as grandiose as a university president’s invitation to a killer of American troops and a sponsor of worldwide terrorism, but they are very serious and need to be challenged. University presidents can counter what Glenn Beck calls an “academic epidemic” by remaining true to the school’s mission and remembering that they are being held accountable for their actions.

 

 

 

Orit Sklar is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering. While at Georgia Tech, she served as the President of the Jewish Student Union – Hillel, board member of the College Republicans, and founder of Jackets for Israel. Orit has been involved in the conservative movement and the quest for academic freedom both within and beyond Georgia Tech, and is currently co-plaintiff in a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging Georgia Tech’s unconstitutional policies. Orit is also co-Founder of RightFX (www.rightfx.com), a company specializing in using design to communicate ideas effectively. Orit can be contacted at oritsklar@gmail.com.