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Student "Affirmative Action Bake Sales" Shut Down Nationwide;
Coercion and Censorship Replace Debate in Seattle

December 16, 2003
by Thor L. Halvorssen

SEATTLE, WA -- Student protests of affirmative action are being shut down on campuses nationwide. At the University of Washington (UW), College Republicans holding an "affirmative action bake sale" -- where baked goods are priced differently according to the race and ethnicity of a hypothetical buyer -- were physically attacked. Campus police eventually intervened in the melee, but instead of defending the values of free expression, police followed the administration's orders to halt the satiric bake sale. At least four other major institutions have shut down similar protests of affirmative action this fall.

"Parody and political satire are not illegal in this country," said Thor Halvorssen, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). "College administrators appear to be under the mistaken impression that protesting affirmative action is not covered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech is a right enjoyed equally and fully by both supporters and opponents of affirmative action."

In these satirical protests, organizers prominently display a menu with a mock pricing scheme in which Hispanic and black students are charged less than Asian or white students for the same items. The pricing scheme draws attention to what protest organizers believe is the inequality and discrimination inherent in affirmative action programs. The bake sales are intended only to spark campus debate about affirmative action policies -- not to raise revenue.

UW's actions were particularly striking examples of autocratic censorship. On October 8, students from the UW College Republicans held a bake sale protest at UW's student union building. At around 12:45 p.m., a confrontation arose when students tore down the group's signs, threw cookies on the ground, and, according to at least one news report, threw a box of cookies in a protester's face. Police moved in and, with the approval of Student Activities Office Senior Advisor Phil Hunt, shut down the sale. FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff wrote a letter to UW President Lee L. Huntsman explaining that the university's decision gave a "heckler's veto" to critics of the bake sale. The letter pointed out that "by shutting down this protest, the university failed to protect the free speech of its students, and instead allowed a small number of violent students to determine what expression will be permitted at UW." In response, UW claimed that the students "were not ordered to close" the bake sale but were merely offered a "suggestion" to withdraw. Further, the university claimed that the students had no permit for the protest. The university's response is misleading and contradicts information in FIRE's possession, including a statement from an administrator who saw the permit, a police report saying that the decision to shut down the demonstration was "backed by the administration," and published media accounts of the incident.

Subsequently, in a frightening betrayal of their fiduciary duty and their obligations to the Bill of Rights, UW's Board of Regents released an open letter condemning the College Republicans for being "hurtful" while failing to mention the counter-demonstrators' disruption of the College Republicans' peaceful expression of their political views on a matter of pressing public concern. The letter was signed by Board president Jerry Grinstein. "This is outrageous. It sends a chilling message to students who wish to engage in honest disagreement," said Halvorssen. "Had this been a protest in favor of affirmative action -- and thus likely to offend the College Republicans -- would hurt feelings have had any standing whatsoever in the hearts and minds of the Board of Regents? The double standard is breathtaking."

FIRE has begun a campaign to expose UW's double standards and its contempt for the Bill of Rights. This will include mailings to alumni, parents, university donors, and state legislators. FIRE will see this matter through to a just conclusion.

A National Trend: Affirmative Action Protests Shut Down from Coast to Coast

* At the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Dean of Students Sally Peterson and Director of Student Judicial Affairs Byron Breland ordered the College Republicans to take down the signs for their September 25 affirmative action bake sale claiming that the sale was "racially discriminatory" because prices for white students were higher. FIRE stated in a letter to Chancellor Ralph Cicerone that the sale was a political protest, not a commercial enterprise, and that "categorizing the 'bake sale' as 'discrimination' willfully misinterprets the expressive purpose of the event." UCI responded to FIRE by defending the claim that the university was legally obligated to shut down the protest. Though the organizers had been willing to change their satirical menu to a "suggested price list," UCI maintained that the protest was a "discriminatory" commercial endeavor. "College administrators would benefit from an introductory course on satire," said FIRE CEO Halvorssen. "These students aren't muffin salesmen and the university knows that. UCI's response is deceitful. No reasonable person would consider such manifest satire -- constitutionally protected, core political speech -- to be a commercial enterprise."

* At Northwestern University, administrators ordered the Objectivist Club to take down signs and price lists for their October 31 affirmative action bake sale. The sale was shut down by Suellen Johnson, associate director of operations at the Norris University Center. Center Director J. William Johnston corroborated Johnson's stance in a communication posted on freerepublic.com: "Had we not shut down the event on procedural grounds, I would have shut down the event anyway" because, he wrote, the bake sale was "discriminatory and not permissible legally nor justifiable morally." FIRE protested Northwestern's censorship in a letter to President Henry S. Bienen. Northwestern responded with allegations that the students had broken permit rules and said that the student government was "investigating" the case. The student government originally charged the bake sale organizers (who say they were protesting "discrimination") with "discrimination," but after a series of kangaroo court proceedings, the Objectivist Club was found guilty only of the ill-defined charge of "ineffectual leadership" for not reserving campus space properly and for not using a university cash box. The original charge of "discrimination" did not survive the investigation or the hearing, leaving no valid excuse for the administration's chilling censorship.

* At Southern Methodist University (SMU), administrators shut down the Young Conservatives of Texas's September 24 affirmative action bake sale protest after only 45 minutes. Dean of Student Affairs Jim Caswell told ABC News that "the policy says very clearly that all members of the university community are protected from harassment. Some folks felt harassed by this discriminatory menu." Dean Caswell's justification for censorship rests on a dangerously overbroad, legally baseless, and intellectually dishonest definition of harassment.

* At the College of William and Mary (W&M), Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Mark Constantine requested that the student group Sons of Liberty take down the menu displays for their November 8 affirmative action bake sale protest. Fearing judicial action if he refused, freshman bake sale organizer Will Coggin obeyed, but he also shut down the protest because without the signs there was no longer any message. Documents obtained by FIRE show that Constantine accused Coggin of "violating campus policy," but when challenged Constantine backed off, saying, "Referring to the Student Handbook at this point in time is counterproductive." A further inquiry from Coggin to Vice President for Student Affairs W. Samuel Sadler also failed to discover any policies that were violated at this public university. W&M has now decided not to discipline the students involved, begging the question of on what basis W&M censored the protest in the first place.

Indiana University Gets It Right

Some universities are taking their moral and legal obligations seriously and have defended their students' freedoms. Indiana University (IU), for example, held fast to the principle of freedom of speech and resisted pressure to punish the organizers of a November 5 bake sale. Damon Sims, associate dean of students at IU, told the Indianapolis Star, "It is a freedom-of-speech issue...This is one of the more significant social and political issues of our time...It is exactly the kind of dialogue that should be encouraged on college campuses." Bake sales also occurred without official attempts to censor at the University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University.

Thor L. Halvorssen is Chief Executive Officer of FIRE, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious liberty, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at campuses across America can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

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