September 20, 2019 • By Dennis Beaver
Today’s story will be of special interest to students who attend California State University Channel Islands and live on campus in a residence hall. For those who cherish Freedom of Speech and Expression, it is now a safe place to live.
Until just a few days ago, it wasn’t, and here’s why
Policies enacted earlier this year by the school’s administration created a real, life-long danger to students who resided on campus, and as you will see, this is no exaggeration.
Upon checking into their dorm, the school’s administrators forced them to wear the equivalent of a mental dog muzzle, knowingly and flagrantly violating the single most important right guaranteed by the United States Constitution, Freedom of Speech.
In a place where open, free debate and discussion must be encouraged, CSU Channel Islands’ administrators made it clear they did not believe these rights should be allowed in its residence halls.
They threatened students with action all the way to expulsion for daring to engage in the kinds of discussions so essential on a college campus, and they did it by making legitimate, protected speech illegal.
Welcome to the Residence Hall – Now Shut Up or Risk Expulsion!
Ask anyone who lived on campus during college days about the exciting discussions over just about any topic under the sun that would come up with room mates, or friends in the dorm. Animated, passionate debate is the spice that makes university exciting, enriching students’ lives in so many ways.
Learning to listen to opinions which differ from our own–especially when accompanied by sarcastic put-downs and pointed language–these things are preparation for dealing with the world outside campus walls. College students quickly learn that other people have strong opinions and are not shy about making those opinions known, often with strong, derogatory language.
Anyone who can’t tolerate being told that they are an idiot for thinking a certain way will face a life of conflict. It is good to be told off, to have our reasoning challenged; it makes us think.
But when a student fears punishment for exercising the most important right the founders of this country gave, then debate, and voicing contrary opinions are stifled. When it becomes “Watch out for what say, and for what you think,” then we are all in trouble.
When a university makes normal speech punishable, then a long winter has settled upon that campus. So, for a moment, picture yourself as a Channel Islands student in the dorm cafeteria, about to get into a debate over the President’s policies with supporters and people who hate the man.
You are just about to accuse one of the students of being “a roaring idiot who is full of @#$#% when someone says, “Stop! Read these Resident Hall rules before saying a word!”
Labeled Derogatory Comments as Harassment
In violation of a standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Davis decision of 1999, the Resident Handbook stated, “Harassment includes, but is not limited to, verbal harassment–epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs–and visual forms of harassment, such as derogatory posters, cartoons, drawings, symbols, or gestures.”
Talk about an elephant squashing Free Speech! Violate those rules and you could get yourself punished, all the way up to expulsion!
And just what is the legal standard for harassment?
As the Court stated in Davis, “Harassment in education is behavior that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
Telling a dormitory resident that he’s a moron for “feeling that way” opens the door to the moron showing them by using the school’s power to find harassing behavior and kick someone out of school!
A School Lawyer Who Did the Right Thing
When this dangerous, twisted, illegal language came to my attention, I contacted the school’s attorney, Marc Mootchnik, who admitted that it did violate the Davis decision and promised to do what he could to make things right.
Unlike lawyers who will support a client who he knows is wrong, Mootchnik kept his word. That language is now gone from the handbook, and while not perfect, does appear to meet the Davis standard, and states:
“Harassment and bullying do not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose.”
And if Mootchnik had not prevailed? Professor Lyle Sussman of the University of Louisville had this comment:
“Recall the conversations we had in our respective student union, cafeteria, dormitory rooms, and walking to and from classes. Those conversations might have resulted in our suspension/expulsion if they occurred at Cal State Channel Islands, 2019.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.