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Recently, Clemson University administration released a series of guidelines and rules to participants ahead of the school’s annual First Friday parade. As has happened in so many prior usurpations of authority by administrators, these rules are arbitrary, and leave the administration with a stunning degree of latitude to determine what speech and symbols are permissible.
Were Clemson a private school, it would not be bound to abide by First Amendment rules; however, because it is – given that it receives both state and federal funding – its students, under law at least, are guaranteed the full protections afforded by the First Amendment. Case after case from the Supreme Court has determined that very few exceptions exist to the First Amendment right to free speech – for instance, the right to yell “fire” in a crowded building where there is none, “fighting words,” or general threats, particularly threats leveled against elected leaders, are not necessarily protected by the amendment that the Founders considered number one in writing the Bill of Rights.
Beyond these and very few other exceptions, however, the First Amendment is absolute, and covers not just the speech deemed permissible by the neoliberal regime’s whim of the moment, but all speech – including speech that is deemed offensive, distasteful, or otherwise frowned-upon statements or beliefs.
Nominally, Clemson as a public university is bound by the same standards as the rest of the public world on issues relating to speech: it is not, legally speaking, permitted to punish or otherwise take action against its students, even where touchy administrators consider some statement or another to be a faux pas.
The guidelines released by administrators for the First Friday Parade, which seem to fly in the face of Clemson’s legal obligations, are exceedingly arbitrary and almost certainly unconstitutional.
In the guidelines, Central Spirit states that “Participants’ banners, displays, and/or vehicles may NOT contain vulgarity of any type or offensive language, signs, flags with any negative connotation, towels, clothing, etc. If items may be perceived as offensive, parade officials reserve the right to require that participants remove the item or that the participants be removed from the parade, as well as disqualification from the banner competition.”
This dictate, however, raises more questions than answers: Who gets to decide what “may be perceived as offensive?” Will Clemson hold a referendum of students for each perceived offense? Will this referendum include graduate students and faculty, or only undergrads? Will this vote be held on a plurality or majority basis?
The notion is, of course, a facetious one: the permissibility of any symbols or language on a student’s “banner, display, and/or vehicle” will come down, ultimately, to the arbitrary whims of an administrative bureaucrat. These bureaucrats – whose salaries are funded by taxpayers and students themselves, often at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses or loans – will, of course, have unilateral authority over what the people who pay their paychecks are allowed to say and preach.
Beyond the realm of the absurd, the guidelines released by Central Spirit raise some questions of a more serious nature: What standards, if any, will administrators use in determining which speech constitutes protected speech? If Confederate flags – which are all but certain to be prohibited due to perceived offensiveness—are prohibited, will administrators be equally strict in prohibiting flags glorifying homosexuality or transgenderism on the basis that conservative and Christian students may find them offensive? If Black Lives Matter flags are permitted, will Blue Lives Matter flags or All Lives Matter flags be permitted? Will the Catholics be able to fly Papal flags if the protestants find them offensive? Will the British be able to fly the flag of the United Kingdom if Clemson’s Irish emigre population finds them distasteful?
These and other questions are not merely theoretical. Indeed, the Clemson administration, having declared themselves judge and jury in determining permissible speech, have also bestowed upon themselves the title of executioner during the First Friday Parade.
“Any organization in violation of rules may be subjected to disciplinary action with the Office of Community and Ethical Standards (OCES) including, but not limited to, suspension or dismissal from the University,” the Central Spirit communique warns.
In short, this is to say that administrators, upon making an ambiguous determination that some symbol or another is “offensive,” reserve to themselves the right to refer students to OCES – an organization that is itself an overreach of administrative authority – to suspend students or even to remove them. Likely, given that this would open the school up to severe civil liability, simple speech violations will not be escalated to the level of expulsion or even suspension; still, the existence of the rule itself is a concerning presumption of authority on the part of Clemson University.
Nevertheless, the presumption of an almost unlimited authority over speech is unsurprising.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a free speech advocacy group, Clemson University’s policies are rated as “yellow,” which the organization ascribes to institutions with “at least one … policy that restricts a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of vague wording, can too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”
An even more concerning joint survey conducted by College Pulse, RealClearEducation, and FIRE ranked Clemson 124 for freedom of speech out of a pool of 159 schools, placing it lower than schools in some of the most liberal states in the U.S. The University of Rhode Island, the University of Vermont, the University of Connecticut, UC Davis, and New York University, among others, scored higher than Clemson for protecting students’ speech. Among Ivy League schools – which have long been infamous among conservatives for being liberal strongholds – only two, Princeton and Harvard, scored lower than Clemson (see the full list below). And to Clemson’s great shame, its long-time rival, the Gamecocks, are also granted more protection, with USC ranking number 100.
Clemson administrators’ war on students’ freedom of speech has gone on long enough. It is time for Clemson, at long last, to declare itself again to be a bastion for free debate and open discussion—including discussions that may be difficult or provocative or unpopular; it is time for Clemson to once again become a place where students may think, say, and preach what they will, without the fear of administrative punishment or retribution.
Rankings for Ivy League Schools Out of 159 Universities Studied:
– Columbia University, 26.
– Yale University, 33.
– Brown University, 52.
– Dartmouth College, 63.
– Cornell University, 82.
– The University of Pennsylvania, 114.
– Clemson University, 124.
– Harvard University, 130.
– Princeton University, 135. *