Op-Ed

It goes beyond the free press. Transylvania University is in a free speech crisis.

Transylvania University
Transylvania University

A recent article by Linda Blackford shines a spotlight upon the recent defunding of Transylvania University’s student newspaper, The Rambler. In the article, Blackford cites Tom Eblen, chapter president of The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, who stated the following: “Transylvania University’s decision to stop compensating the student staff and part-time professional adviser of its online student newspaper, The Rambler, looks like a blatant attempt to silence and control student voices.”

As a student at Transylvania University, I concur with Eblen, but the problem goes far beyond Transy’s disregard for the free press; this also extends to free speech in general. Within 24 hours of Transylvania defunding The Rambler, Transy’s administration shut down a student group for petitioning for freedom of speech on campus. While the administration will cite fairness and safety for shutting down student speech, there is nothing safe or fair about censorship. There is nothing safe or fair about a university administration deciding what counts as allowable opinion.

Here at Transy, we have a “speech code” that requires all student expression to take place in a speech quarantine zone. In a recent survey in which more than 10% of Transy’s student body responded, 88.5% of students said that they do not believe such a speech code should even exist. We all can see that current policy creates a hostile environment for free speech and directly contradicts the values of education, the university, and its student body. If the university wanted to represent its student body, it would abolish this code.

On Wednesday, May 1, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter of Transylvania University tabled on campus. The YDSA chapter followed none of these protocols and that is a good thing. These policies are inherently against Transylvania University’s values, as the university’s student handbook states: It is recognized that free speech is essential in a democratic society. In addition, allowing students the opportunity to hear views opposed to their own is essential to the liberal arts mission of Transylvania. Students have the right to free and open discourse without being censored on the basis of the content of their message.

The very next day, however, conservative students from the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at Transy decided to set up a table to promote free speech at the same place, time, and manner. Within two minutes of setting up, however, the administration decided to shut it down.

While this instance of viewpoint discrimination is incredibly problematic, the policies that allowed the administration to shut these students down can and will be used to censor all students. As a student at Transy and representative of Students for Free Expression, we must collectively condemn any and all efforts to silence voices, even when I disagree with them. Based upon the values of Transylvania University and education in general, all universities should also condemn any act of censorship.

One of the common arguments that I hear about Transy’s situation is that private universities have the right to shut down whatever voice they choose. Universities, however, cannot silence student voices while also endorsing freedom of speech. When a university endorses freedom of speech in the code of conduct but then implements policies that create a hostile environment for free speech, that university is misleading its current and prospective students. The defunding of The Rambler and the institution’s speech codes are part of a free speech crisis happening at Transylvania University. Transy’s censorship of student groups goes against our values as a liberal arts university. Transylvania University must protect the speech rights of its students by adopting the standards set forth by the Chicago Principles and House Bill 254 if they truly take its students’ rights to a free press, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression seriously.

TJ Roberts is a student at Transylvania University where he is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication (WRC) double major. Roberts is also a representative for Students for Free Expression.

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