By Caleb Diehl /// Managing Editor
In a six-page letter sent April 18 to President Barry Glassner, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) chastised Lewis & Clark for cracking down on two students’ free speech rights. FIRE demanded prompt reversal of punishment for remarks the students made last fall at a party in Holmes Hall, helping spark the Walk the Talk movement. The letter includes FERPA waivers from both students permitting FIRE to discuss the case, and asks for Glassner’s response by May 2.
“While LCC (Lewis & Clark College) is a private college not bound by the First Amendment, it makes institutional promises that bind it morally and legally to protect free expression,” wrote Ari Z. Cohn, program officer of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, in a copy of the letter obtained by the Pioneer Log.
Associate Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications Tom Krattenmaker declined to comment.
Associate Professor of English Lyell Asher informed FIRE of the party in Holmes and the resulting disciplinary measures. On Nov. 23, around twenty football players clustered in a room. During a game of beer pong, the students mentioned in FIRE’s letter—one African American, one white—exchanged the words “nigger” and “white power” as part of an inside joke.
After a resident reported the slurs, the two students learned on Nov. 27 that they would come before the College Review Board. They had until 9 a.m. next Monday to compile witness lists and find a faculty or staff advisor. At a hearing on Dec. 3, the College Review Board interviewed seventeen students and found that ten were not around for the chanting. The two football players were found responsible for making discriminatory remarks and put on unconditional probation for one year, meaning they face suspension for their next disciplinary violation.
Director of FIRE’s individual rights defense program Peter Bonilla explained that FIRE is sympathetic to students hurt by the racial slurs, but that the punishment was “disproportionate to the scale of the offense.” For behavior in an educational setting to qualify as harassment, Bonilla said, it must be “pervasive, objective and severe.”
Furthermore, Cohn wrote, LC violated the students’ due process rights when it expanded its investigation to include earlier events. A report from Area Director Natasha Begin shows the larger scope of LC’s investigation, covering language in the Bon, the Football team locker room and “around campus generally.” Cohn wrote that LC did not give the students time to prepare a meaningful defense to accusations of earlier misconduct.
Throughout last fall, LC students showed frustration with what Bonilla dubbed the “veil of secrecy” surrounding administrators’ handling of a number of racists acts. Bound by FERPA and institutional policy, administrators could not reveal the number of students convicted, or their names.
FIRE, a non-profit group, claims to defend rights to freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience on college campuses.
LC’s policy on Freedom of Expression & Academic Inquiry, available in the Navigator Student Handbook, permits “members of the college community” to “examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately.” Oregon law states that terms in publications provided to a student by a private university can constitute a binding contract.
To live up to the policies it promotes in keeping with the spirit of the first amendment, FIRE wrote, LC must “clear all disciplinary charges and sanctions related to the students’ expression, and clear their records of all mention of LCC’s misguided disciplinary action.”
Edited at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday: “FIRE, a non-profit group,claims to defend” free speech rights.
Edited to reflect the following correction: Tom Krattenmaker is Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications, not Director of Communications
Caleb Diehl is the managing editor of The Pioneer Log. His work has also appeared in The Park Record and on the Lewis & Clark School of Education and Counseling webpage. He is a contributing writer to the LC Journal for Social Justice. Follow Caleb on Twitter @calebsdiehl