Shades Of Grey In Free Speech On Campus

When Fifty Shades of Grey was pulled from the Boston College Bookstore shelves last week, the administration leapt to its defense. “When we learned about the incident, we urged Follett to reconsider their decision in light of the inappropriateness of removing books from a bookshelf at a university,” University spokesperson Jack Dunn said in an email.

On Monday, an unidentified group of students spread around 500 fliers on campus with the message, “This Poster Is Illegal – Support Free Speech.” Admittedly, these papers proved to be a nuisance for facilities crews, but their point on the bureaucratic mechanisms limiting the dissemination of information on campus holds. Why is it, in a place of commerce, the University is willing to defend free speech, and even criticise the hindrance of it, while in academic buildings and outdoor spaces, the practice of it is very much limited?

The posters were put up without the approval of the Office of Student Involvement (OSI), and such disruptive displays should not become a common occurrence. There is an irony, however, that anything goes in the campus Bookstore, while those looking to express political beliefs in academic spaces are left to navigate several stages of approval, with campus speakers frequently required to sign contracts imposing silence on issues like gay marriage.

Free speech on campus is an admirable goal, and if the University is serious about it, there’s little room for compromise. Currently, the school requires that all events or programs sponsored by student organizations to be consistent with the values and principles espoused by BC as a Jesuit and Catholic University. This is a fair stance for a private institution to take, and in choosing to go to BC, students are in a way accepting that there might be some restrictions placed on their ability to express ideas.

The University should not masquerade around, however, claiming this is an open environment for expression when its policies are designed to actively discourage ideas that conflict with Catholic values. And then there are groups like Climate Justice at Boston College (which advocates for an aggressive stance on climate change very much in line with the views espoused by the Vatican) that are kept from having a formalized role on campus, seemingly for the disruptive nature of their message.

Free expression is not the default. It is not appropriate for every institution, and if the University is truly committed to creating an environment that encourages it, there will need be a new expectation for nuisance. The policies proposed for free speech by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) at the end of last semester would open up the floodgates for the proverbial Monday morning poster dump.

Kindly staged demonstrations and flier postings might not set the world aflame, but they make for prettier campus tours. And moving forward, BC will need to decide just what type of institution it hopes to be. It is possible to have very important conversations within the constraints of Catholic social teaching, but there are also plenty of discussions such a doctrine completely leaves off the table.

When it comes to free speech at BC, for now, there are still plenty of shades of grey.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor

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3 Comments

  1. Are you people out of your minds? “Disruptive displays”? “Free speech is not appropriate for every institution”? Encouraging free expression warrants a “new expectation for nuisance”? This is a college campus for pete’s sake! This school has a responsibility to its mission and its students over its desire for prettier campus tours. The fact that a NEWSPAPER finds paper flyers to be disruptive baffles me. The editorial board ought to take a good, hard look at the power it has as a platform for free expression and advocate for the same opportunity for other students. Also, not for nothing, but for 40 grand a year, I think I deserve the right to put up a few flyers, don’t you?

    • I don’t know what you want them to write, if you were looking for some hard-line response, look elsewhere.

      While I agree, the use of ‘disruptive displays’ is a bit absurd, I think that you are confused by what they meant by ‘Free speech is not appropriate for every institution.” — Most likely, they mean that students shouldn’t be able to interrupt class with a ‘protest,’ stage ‘die-ins’ inside the faculty/Jesuit dormitories, and be able to post whatever they want where-ever they want.

      Frankly, yes you chose to pay 40k to go here (no one forced you) but eight thousand other kids do too. So you aren’t and shouldn’t be entitled to blast your speech wherever you please on whomever you feel should be subjected to it whenever you think it is timely to do so.

      The thing about speech is, yes, there is free speech that you are entitled to as a citizen of the United States. The government can never try to gag you. You don’t have that same right when dealing with private institutions. They don’t owe you anything other than what you agreed to.

      Can you try to change them? Yes. Should you try if you see something wrong? Definitely.

      What I would like to see are areas where content can be posted without OSI’s approval. Some will argue that this could be a slippery slope — after all, what is to stop me from, say, posting my posters over your posters? Probably nothing. There could be a poster–cold-war that transpires. But honestly, I doubt it. It could be set up so that every week, placements could be made on Monday and removed on Sunday (or whatever arbitrary dates are decided on).

      All that being said, whoever posted the posters: good on them, I would help if I knew who you were. OSI is a complete bureaucratic joke.

    • No I really don’t. You don’t have to go here and you had the opportunity to choose any school you wanted. If you think you need the ability to hang any flier you want in buildings you don’t own then you could have (maybe) found a school that would have let you. You’re not entitled to anything; you choose to be here.

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