Drexel University is severely restricting speech rights on campus, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The organization, which strives to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities, ranked Drexel among the 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2018.
Overall, FIRE, which reports on written policies of over 450 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities, gave Drexel its lowest rating in the “red light” category for having policies that clearly and substantially hinder freedom of speech on campus.
“According to our latest annual report on speech codes, 28.5 percent of the schools in our database earn an overall ‘red light’ rating, so Drexel’s red light rating puts it in the bottom third of schools in our database,” Laura Beltz, a policy reform program officer at FIRE, told The Triangle.
The Philadelphia-based nonprofit referenced several policies in its report that it says actively hamper fundamental freedoms, including Policy IT-7, Drexel’s email policy. The policy notes that students can’t use “offensive language” via email, which Beltz says is far too vague.
“‘Offensive’ is a broad and undefined term that includes a great deal of speech that is protected under First Amendment standards — just about any speech could be subjectively deemed offensive by someone,” Beltz explained.
FIRE also referred to Policy OED-1: Drexel’s Discrimination, Harassment, and Bias Incident Prevention Policy.
“Freedom of expression and the right to disagree are fundamental to the educational experience and culture of our University,” a summary of the policy explained.
However, the policy itself runs somewhat contradictory to this declaration and, according to Beltz, encourages students to report any verbal conduct that is “bullying” on the basis of a particular characteristic.
“Expressions that subjectively portray bias or hate are nonetheless protected under First Amendment standards, unless they constitute one of the narrow exceptions to the First Amendment, like harassment or true threats. If students are told statements that are perceived as hateful could be reported for discipline, they may be wary about expressing any controversial opinions at all,” she said.
These policies ultimately give the administration the ability to investigate and punish speech that is protected under First Amendment standards, Beltz explained.
“Even if students haven’t heard of these policies currently being applied in this way, their presence on the books means administrators could decide to target a particular type of expression at any time,” she said.
In addition to these policies, however, the organization most notably alludes to the treatment of former associate professor, George Ciccariello-Maher, which FIRE considers a clear violation of his entitlement to academic freedom.
Academic freedom is typically granted to tenured faculty and is also applied to instructors in class, Provost Brian Blake told The Triangle, explaining that it protects teaching, research and extramural speech — including social media. The purpose of the policy, he said, is to encourage new thinking.
“It was initially conceived to allow faculty to have that ability to explore research and teaching in ways that are not prohibited by management from a financial perspective — all those kinds of constraints that could interfere with the full freedom and the full innovation and exploration of knowledge,” he said.
Blake told The Triangle that the university has a long track record in protecting academic freedom.
“We’ve been excellent in maintaining academic freedom for our faculty — even in tough cases,” he said.
But FIRE says the case of Ciccariello-Maher, which started when he controversially tweeted “All I Want For Christmas is White Genocide” back in December 2016, was inappropriately handled. When public backlash to this tweet (perhaps unsurprisingly) followed, Drexel initially promised Ciccariello-Maher that he would not face punishment for the tweet, but launched an investigation regardless.
“When we get threats that seem legitimate or we have students that offer concerns or faculty and professional staff that have complaints, then we’re put in the unfavorable position where we have to try to condense all that information to figure out what’s the best way to move operationally,” Blake told The Triangle. “In this case, the university was silent. We had no position of what would be the outcome of the advisory committee but we had an obligation to create a faculty-led committee to provide support to my office, so the committee was formed in conversation with the faculty senate.”
FIRE wrote to Drexel June 2, 2017, reminding the university of its commitments to academic freedom and warning that its investigation of Ciccariello-Maher contradicted those promises. In a response to FIRE three days later, Blake wrote back to clarify and correct what he calls a “misunderstanding” and claimed that all decisions would comply with the standards set forth by the American Association of University Professors, which defines fundamental professional values to advance academic freedom and shared governance in higher education.
“You can be assured that any potential official action that the University might take with respect to Professor Ciccariello‐Maher or any other faculty member will accord with relevant AAUP guidelines and standards (including academic freedom and freedom of expression) as well as applicable University policies and procedures,” Blake wrote.
Drexel continued its investigation, eventually placing Ciccariello-Maher on paid leave and barring him from campus in October. In a letter to Drexel in October 2017, the AAUP contended that the suspension of Ciccariello-Maher was problematic since he did not agree to be placed on leave, especially since administration did not consult a faculty committee prior to the suspension.
Blake, however, said the issue was that the AAUP defined the university’s response as being a disciplinary action when he said it was merely a safety measure.
InsideHigherEd reported on the investigation, citing a letter from Blake claiming that the university had lost potential students and donors due to Ciccariello-Maher and had been concerned about the “nearly unmanageable volume of venomous calls” that Drexel consequently received.
In an interview with The Triangle in July 2017, Ciccariello-Maher spoke of the investigation into his conduct and criticized the alleged reasoning behind it.
“You can’t go around disciplining faculty because of the fact that they themselves have become threatened and been threatened by utterly reactionary and irrational forces that are becoming very powerful in this society. If you do that, there’s no such thing as academic freedom, and if you discipline faculty based on what donors think — in other words, important people with money — then you’ve got no vestige of academic freedom left,” he said.
Ciccariello-Maher announced his resignation from the position in December 2017. Blake said this decision was ultimately up to Ciccariello-Maher and not influenced by university actions.
“Professor Ciccariello-Maher decided to resign; it was no pressure from us,” he said.
Ultimately, Beltz said that Drexel’s willingness to abandon the defense of its faculty’s academic freedom rights in the face of controversy show that Drexel is not living up to its promises in policy or practice — especially since this is accompanied by other questionable policies.
She said that FIRE recommends that Drexel revise all of its policies that regulate expression to meet First Amendment legal standards, even though the university is not legally obliged to the First Amendment like public universities.
“Private universities like Drexel aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment, but the vast majority of private colleges promise their students free speech rights in their official written policy materials, binding them morally, and perhaps contractually, to living up to those promises. Drexel provides in written policy that it is ‘committed to the free expression of ideas,’ that it ‘values freedom of expression,’ and that this value protects the expression and discussion of controversial ideas,” she said.
FIRE routinely works collaboratively with colleges to develop policies that meet administrators’ concerns and objectives — while also still protecting free speech. However, Beltz said that Drexel has been vague and opaque in responses to FIRE, and has generally been unwilling to consider policy revision recommendations.
Blake, however, said that he is always willing to make changes to better the university.
“But it’s not something that we change overnight; we have to go through the natural process for it,” he said.
In the end, Beltz also encourages that students themselves fight back to protect their free speech.
“Students at Drexel should let the administration know that [they] care about free speech and academic freedom rights. If you think students and professors should not need to be worried that constitutionally protected speech like a controversial tweet will result in investigation or punishment, you should let the administration know, and encourage the administration to revise its policies,” she said.
This, she said, is important for the learning environment overall.
“Students come to college to learn and grow, and not just in the classroom,” she said. “If students and faculty members are afraid or unable to express themselves on campus, the college is prevented from becoming the marketplace of ideas that it should serve as in our country, where students debate and ideas compete for prominence.”