With the fall semester beginning at colleges and universities around the U.S., it's time for a new round of controversy over student speech. Right out of the gate, Virginia's Old Dominion University takes an early lead: WTKR News Channel 3 reports that ODU "officials took time from their weekend to respond to some banners hung up at an off-campus home that are upsetting many."
The banners: "Rowdy And Fun: Hope Your Baby Girl is Ready for a Good Time." "Freshman Daughter Drop Off." "Go Ahead and Drop Off Mom Too ..."
Offensive? Yeah, I can buy that. Certainly not very respectful of women. But, on the other hand, also very informative and likely self-correcting. If I lived in that house, I wouldn't bet money on me being able to get dates with any ODU co-eds this semester. Just sayin'.
But when it comes to truly offensive, sickening speech, let's talk about this, from an official statement issued by ODU: "Messages like the ones displayed yesterday by a few students on the balcony of their private residence are not and will not be tolerated."
Old Dominion is a "public" — by which I mean tax-funded — university. And as the statement makes clear, the banners were displayed at a private residence, not on campus.
Public universities don't get to decide to "not tolerate" student speech. Especially speech that takes place off-campus at a private residence.
ODU's administrators, of all people, should be well aware of that fact. Old Dominion originated as part of the College of William and Mary, the institution where Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler studied, and where George Washington got his surveyor's credentials. The idea that the First Amendment has thus far escaped notice at ODU just isn't plausible.
In a message to faculty, staff and students, Old Dominion president John R. Broderick claims to have spoken with a young female student who "described the true meaning of the hurt this caused." The student, writes Broderick, "thought seriously about going home." Broderick closes his message with dire threats of disciplinary action against those displaying the banners.
Broderick should have spent more time talking with the young student, explaining to her that if a few stupid signs hung on a private residence have her thinking about quitting school, she probably should. ODU is allegedly a university, not a daycare center, and she's clearly neither intellectually nor emotionally mature enough to handle living on her own as a semi-autonomous adult.
Unfortunately, the teacup tempest at Old Dominion isn't an isolated incident. America's colleges and universities seem to be collectively sliding into daycare center mode, where the mission is to offer students four additional years of insulated, isolated childhood instead of educations to fit them for adult life in the real world.
The danger to free speech in this case may seem slight, but it isn't and can't be. Speech is free or it isn't. To compromise that value at Old Dominion now is to cultivate future tyranny everywhere.
(Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism, thegarrisoncenter.org. He lives and works in north central Florida.)