Victory for Free Speech at William & Mary
TheFire.org, Feb. 3
After pressure from and public exposure by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the College of William & Mary (W&M) has reversed course and allowed an “affirmative action bake sale” to proceed without interference. A student group, the Sons of Liberty, saw its satirical protest unlawfully halted by W&M in November; it was one of many such protests nationwide that were shut down on campuses this past fall. While W&M allowed the group’s bake sale to proceed without incident this time, W&M President Timothy J. Sullivan issued a statement denying that his administration acted improperly in stopping the same protest just months before.
“We are pleased that W&M has realized that under the First Amendment free speech belongs to all students on its campus,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “We are appalled, however, by W&M’s continuing efforts to distort the truth about its actions and to evade responsibility for what it has done.”
On January 27, the day of the successful protest, W&M issued a statement by President Sullivan denouncing the affirmative action bake sale as “inexcusably hurtful” and “abusive” (precisely the claim that some critics of affirmative action make about racial preferences). Sullivan denied that W&M had wrongfully censored the November protest, which, he claimed, “did not meet the administrative requirements we routinely impose on such activities.” This came as surprising news to the Sons of Liberty, who for nearly three months had asked W&M officials for an explanation of the censorship, and who had heard no mention of any violation of “administrative requirements.” Readers can view the many unsuccessful attempts of Sons of Liberty President Will Coggin (and others) to obtain an explanation for W&M’s repression of free speech, and the administration’s actual responses, at www.thefire.org/bakesale.
Coggin recalled, “They couldn’t answer our questions because they couldn’t come up with a reason that wasn’t unconstitutional.” FIRE’s Lukianoff added, “One can hardly imagine such tactics being used to shut down a protest that administrators found more to their liking politically.”
The bake sales have become a widely used form of political parody directed against affirmative action. Organizers prominently display a menu with satiric prices in which black and Hispanic students are charged less than Asian and white students for the same items. The bake sales are intended to spark debate about affirmative action policies, not to raise revenue. Indeed, students report that Tuesday’s bake sale prompted pro-affirmative action students to organize a counter-protest and to engage the Sons of Liberty in a debate about this controversial topic. “As is so often the case, administrators need to learn the basics of living in a free society from their students,” said Lukianoff.
Coggin contacted FIRE for assistance soon after the November 8 sale. At that time, FIRE was helping students on campuses across the country who had encountered similar problems. On December 12, FIRE began a campaign of public exposure of the suppression of these protests at W&M, the University of Washington, Northwestern University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of California, Irvine.
When FIRE’s intervention prompted many concerned citizens to write critically to W&M’s President Sullivan, he responded dismissively, telling one thoughtful defender of free speech, “Some fool has sent me an e-mail and signed your name to it.” FIRE wrote an open letter to W&M’s Board of Visitors about both the university’s unconstitutional censorship and President Sullivan’s contempt for those who wrote to him about the fundamental rights of students. FIRE also wrote to W&M on January 23, 2004, seeking President Sullivan’s assurance that the upcoming bake sale would not be censored. This second protest by the Sons of Liberty proceeded unhindered.
FIRE will continue to monitor the situation at W&M closely to ensure that the university lives up to its promise to respect and defend the First Amendment rights of its students.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, civic leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. Please visit www.thefire.org to read more.