With FIRE letter to Chopp, Phi Psi Controversy Heats Up

1281987842700681677Censored_rubber_stamp.svg.hiSwarthmore’s administration has until Wednesday to rescind the sanctions they’ve placed on Phi Psi fraternity. Or at least, that’s when the probe from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) into Swarthmore’s arbitrary suppression of student free speech will really heat up.

FIRE has taken an interest in speech and due process issues at Swarthmore, and on Oct. 16, FIRE Director Samantha Harris wrote President Chopp a formal letter stating the Foundation’s concerns. FIRE is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works to defend liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience on campuses across the country.

Although Swarthmore is a private institution, it is punishing Phi Psi members for speech that would most definitely be protected by the First Amendment at a public university. The Swarthmore Handbook states that “faculty members, administrators, and trustees” have an obligation to defend “free expression on and off the campus.” This amounts to a contractual promise to free speech.

Unfortunately, Swarthmore has breached that promise.  As we reported last week, Deans Liz Braun and Liliana Rodriquez cracked down on the fraternity for issuing a risqué flyer, without any effort to demonstrate that the fraternity’s invitation, which featured a mosaic of half-naked women taken from the Web, violated defined College policies.

The administration’s Puritanical offense-taking culminated in a Oct. 8 letter to the fraternity mandating that they halt their pledge efforts until they manifest their “genuine appreciation” for what they have learned in a series of College-run workshops. Such a demand runs roughshod over Phi Psi members’ freedom of conscience. The brothers have been offered absolutely no opportunity to defend themselves against allegations that they have, as Dean Rodriquez put it, “no respect for women as members of our community, or in society more generally.”

Harris’ letter persuasively states why the sanctions against Phi Psi are so problematic. For one, based on the Handbook, students enrolling in Swarthmore have no expectation that their speech rights would be curtailed any more than at a public university. Second, Swarthmore’s reference to Title IX in the Oct. 8 disciplinary letter is erroneous. The flyer does not constitute unprotected sexual harassment. As the College’s own Handbook states on “Harassing” expression:

[B]efore any expression can be considered for possible formal grievance procedures, it must be clear that no substantial free expression interests are threatened by bringing a formal charge of harassing expression. This strict criterion for possible formal grievance procedures must be imposed to ensure that the College does nothing that would tend to diminish free expression or compromise principles of academic freedom in the vigorous and often contentious examination and criticism of ideas, works of art, and political activity that marks Swarthmore College.

It is obvious that, in punishing Phi Psi, the administration has ignored its own guarantee to formal procedures. In her letter to President Chopp, Harris writes, “Swarthmore cannot, as it seems to be doing here, attempt to circumvent these protections by simply taking adverse action against a student or student organization without actually charging them with violating university policy.

The equation, according to Harris, is quite simple: “Either Phi Psi has violated a university policy, in which case it is entitled to the due process specified in Swarthmore’s policies, or it has not, in which case the college may not impose sanctions, including ‘educational requirements’ (listed as a form of ‘disciplinary sanctions’ in Swarthmore’s judicial policies), on the group.”

There’s so much to parse in the administration’s free speech and due process transgressions that Harris doesn’t even get to the hypocrisy of the Genderf**k and Crunkfest parties until page 4. She writes, “Swarthmore’s arbitrary decision to take action against Phi Psi’s sexually oriented expression while allowing other, similar sexually oriented expression to go unchallenged raises due process concerns.” Harris points out that the hosts of Genderf**k and Crunkfest have never been forced into reeducation workshops until they demonstrate a “genuine appreciation” of the College’s position on appropriate gender relations.

In the case of Genderf**k, Harris might be interested to know that administrators themselves play a role in much of the planning and funding process. At Genderfu**k, Swarthmore’s own students are permitted—many would say encouraged—to arrive at the party while heavily intoxicated and partially nude. The Phi Psi flyers look conservative by comparison. We know for a fact that there are students deeply offended by the goings on at Genderf**k and Crunkfest—expression, which Harris notes, is “far more pervasive than a single flier.”

Then again, for Swarthmore’s administration, taking offense is a selective art.

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