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The Sentinel

An Eye on the Penn State Administration


Does Penn State University Suppress Freedom?

Why is it that a public institution has the ability to tamper with the very principles this country was founded upon? Penn State has done so by infringing upon our right to free speech and as students here we must acknowledge this before change can occur.

The diffusion of knowledge is hinged upon our country’s celebrated First Amendment. The academic setting of a nonprivate university must be an open arena of expression where different viewpoints can lead to a better understanding. A strong minded student must have his or her beliefs shook, whether it is to reaffirm his beliefs or to change them. In essence, we come to a college or university to mature into informed, adult citizens ready that can handle different view points. It is with this basic assumption in mind, that academic grounds, more specifically Penn State, are a unique place where freedom of speech is needed.

The Pennsylvania State University has created rules in order to accomplish the goals the University was founded upon. The Penn State Charter and mission statement, which can easily be found searching www.psu.edu, encompass, “to promote liberal and practical education in the several pursuits and professions of life,” as well as to carry out teaching, research and service to promote the general welfare of the citizenry.

As a land-grant institution, Penn State is not a state school but was founded by the state and is supported by the state. According to the website of the law school at Cornell University, the “First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.” Without being a private institution, Penn State should have no authority to hinder the First Amendment. Yet our ability to speak freely is restricted.

The locations of free speech have been contained to certain areas which the administration has chosen as acceptable areas of public discourse. According to the August 16th issue of the Centre of Daily Times, this summer, A.J Fluehr with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund eased restrictions this past summer by taking the university to litigation and settling out of court. Before, students were limited to only use ‘expressive speech in free speech zones. While Fluehr’s case made progress on the issues, free speech is still an issue. The very nature of free speech is that it should not be contained, particularly by area or by type of expression. This seems to be inherent and obvious but we are subjected to boundaries on campus.

Penn State’s AD (administrative) policy 51 deals with the use of outdoor expressive activities. Twelve areas have been deemed suitable for expressive activities: Old Main front patio, Allen Street Gate, Willard Building patio area between Willard and Obelisk, Palmer Art Museum Plaza, Northwest corner of Shortlidge Rd. and College Avenue, Fisher Plaza, IST Plaza, Pattee Library Mall entrance plaza, HUB-Robeson – Rear sidewalk pad (not the Patio), HUB-Robeson – Lawn, Osmond Fountain Area (after 5pm), and the area under the Willaman Gateway to the Life Sciences. While registration for these area is encouraged, it is not mandatory and expressive speech may take place in other areas.

But if you are not a resident of an area hall you are not allowed to hold any meeting or protest there which again limits the area in which you can speak in a public forum manner. The area halls are a perfect place to hold public protests or to speak publicly on important issues yet are only acceptable if you live there. Over two thirds of undergraduate students live off campus spread out among different neighborhoods. There is no central location for off campus students to speak their minds and be able to reach such a wide audience. There is also no guarantee of on campus residence after freshman year. If your audience is aimed at students, the commons area of residence halls is perfect. But this is not acceptable according the free speech policies set by administrators.

Sound amplification is also prohibited as is all activity that interferes with classrooms, offices, study facilities, libraries, or other University facilities. While I am not arguing that free speech should interfere with general functions of Penn State, I feel the urgent need to defend our constitutional rights. Free Speech comes in various forms and the manner in which we voice our thoughts and opinions should be restricted, especially if this world of academia is to be a ‘free marketplace of ideas’. A free marketplace of ideas is a phrase which the Penn State administration touts but does not live up to. I am by no means suggesting that Penn State be a free education but that the marketplace be open to all areas and styles.

To discourage such a practice may impede on a student’s learning or may prevent faculty or administrators from hearing opposing view points. According to the Daily Collegian February 9th, 2007 issue, that day members of SpeakOut, the Black Caucus and others created a disturbance such that Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Triponey, Vice President for Educational Equity, Terrell Jones, and Felicia MiGinty had to leave their work and address the issue. “After a little more than an hour, during which the group was threatened with arrest upon Old Main’s closing, Vice President for Student Affairs Vicky Triponey and Vice President for Educational Equity Terrell Jones agreed to meet with the group in a conference room at the HUB.”

Is this the standard set for free speech to flourish? We should have to fear police action or any consequences if we peacefully protest. These students did not intend to damage Penn State or the functions required to make the university operate but wanted to voice their opinions to create a positive change. If these students did not address their issue so publicly, it might go easily ignored or swept under the rug. In this sense, the lack of action taken by a few people could harm the well being of the university in that no change will be made at all.

Rarely is it the case at Penn State that protests or public forums occur for the purpose of impeding the University’s daily operations to worsen the University. We must also remember the ability to influence and change policy is a cornerstone of democracy and active citizenry. Such active participation could be seen by the College Republicans last September. To commemorate 9/11 the group put on an impressive memorial which included a speech from the United States Congressman John E. Peterson of Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District. According to the September 12th Daily Collegian, “Peterson spoke with great emotion, to the point that one of the National Guard members, situated behind the congressman, fainted. He was overwhelmed with emotion. He joined the National Guard and ROTC because of 9/11,” Sergeant First Class Leonard Kelly said.

But because they used amplified sound they were rebuked by the university. Stan Latta, director of unions and student activities, wrote a letter to College Republicans President Seth Bender to alert him of the administration’s displeasure over the situation. Rather than congratulate them on such an impressive memorial, they criticize on something protected by our nation’s bill of rights. The forty-six minute event was over before nine AM and instead of focusing on the success of the memorial or the 3,000 who died that day, they focus on use of amplified sound. It’s trivial in comparison.

To suggest that such a restriction on location or volume can be afforded in name of efficiency can be seen as inherently undemocratic or oppressive to an individual or groups beliefs or opinions. Whether you agree or not with the opinions of those vocalizing their own, it is crucial to see the event itself and the dialogue it creates. The memorial and the Speak Out protest created a time to reflect on important issues and we must see that as the focus behind their actions. Public discourse serves to both shake and strengthen and individuals ideologies.

It calls attention to that which individuals find important. By tampering with the mechanisms of public discourse you stunt active citizenry. As young adults we must dive deep into the experiences of becoming active and effective citizens and the administration should support this. It is my hope that we can all acknowledge this problem at such an incredible university, and not be overwhelmed by it but be energized to make the necessary changes using our right to free speech and various peaceful and effective means.

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