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Our Sound of Silence 

Humboldt State University loves posters. Well, some kinds of posters. The bookstore sells bland posters of famous paintings and rock stars each fall. The school holds competitions for academic posters about research. Posters for events cram bulletin boards during the school year. But you won't see many other posters.

In a few weeks, students from across the state will pour back into town. And a new president will give this year's convocation speech for a university at which speech itself is quite restricted.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement — massive demonstrations at UC Berkeley sparked by the university's ban on political activity on campus and its attempt to clamp down on students trying to raise money and awareness for the civil rights movement. It galvanized what became the anti-war movement.

But 50 years later, at universities across the country, we have gone backwards in our protection of free speech.

A group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), formed in 1999 by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Boston civil rights attorney, rates universities on First Amendment compliance. FIRE has HSU at "red light," which is its most alarming level. To get a red light, a university has to have at least one policy "that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. ... In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied."

FIRE gave HSU a red light for its resident's handbook which says, "We reserve the right to determine the appropriateness/reasonableness of decorations and to request the removal of and/or physically remove posters, signs and/or other forms of expression in public view that are perceived as offensive, degrading, discriminatory or which promote hate toward community members, including members of constitutionally protected categories. ..."

That means that housing staff can go into a student's dorm room to remove posters they deem offensive. But that is a very broad category. To some religious people, homosexuality is offensive. Some Hindi groups found Selena Gomez's performance at last year's MTV Movie Awards offensive. There is a lot of misogynistic rap music. Should we ban that on campus? The only way to make sure no one gets offended is to have no speech.

The dorm policy wasn't even on my radar screen and I have long considered HSU a speech-intolerant campus. FIRE's "red light" doesn't hit on HSU's policy that prohibits you from posting any fliers on bulletin boards on campus without first getting an official stamp. Or the amplified sound policy, which limits microphones to the lunch hour and only on the student quad. Or the limitations on chalking: To be able to write messages or draw pictures in chalk on the pathways, you need a permit and you have to commit to cleaning off the scrawls after the permitted day is over.

FIRE didn't tackle the administration's attempt last year to keep the student newspaper from distributing issues after it reported the names of students who were stabbed at a party. It didn't mention administrators' attempts to keep student reporters from interviewing prospective students after the tragic Orland bus crash last year. And it didn't note the administration's many attempts to keep the student press out of important policy and funding meetings or make it difficult for student reporters to get interviews with administrators.

This year, Modesto Junior College settled a lawsuit FIRE filed after a student was prevented from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside of the school's "free speech zone." FIRE announced it would start filing lawsuits one by one against public universities to challenge such restrictive policies. Modesto paid the student plaintiff $50,000. At some point HSU might find itself a target.

A few years ago, I worked with the HSU library and art department to stage a book reading for Banned Books Week. We needed a venue and I suggested people take turns reading "offensive" books in front of a microphone out on the library steps. My fellow committee members said that would violate the amplified sound policy. But wasn't that the whole point of the event, I said, to spotlight restrictions on speech? My suggestion that we intentionally violate the policy was politely shouted down.

I don't think there is a conspiracy to silence students at HSU. Instead, I think the university tries too hard to make the place feel warm and safe. The amplified sound policy is intended to keep noise levels down while classes are in session. But silence is not safety. And classes still take place throughout the designated free speech hour.

Blanket policies stifling expression don't get people to respect each other. Communication between people does that. You don't want to live in a dorm where someone has the Confederate flag in his window. But really, you don't want to live next to the guy who wants to hang the flag. Telling students what they can and cannot put in their windows doesn't make the dorm hate-free. More effective are the friends or classmates who tell the Confederate flag guy how totally whacked he is after he hangs it.

The university should be the place in our community where you find the most spirited debate and political activity. There are so many things students should be angry about these days. What I find most uncomfortable when I come to campus is how silent they are.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Bio:
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at mib3@humboldt.edu.

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