By Canton Winer
Fordham’s free speech record is a lot like its basketball record: pretty embarrassing and largely ignored.
There is, however, one significant difference. The Rams’ dismal 44-106 basketball record resulted in the firing of head coach Tom Pecora last week. The creators and enforcers of Fordham’s unfriendly free speech environment, on the other hand, are still sitting comfortably in their offices.
I, like so many others, have become somewhat resigned to the university’s stifling free speech environment. Unfortunately, most other Fordham students also seem to have quietly accepted business-as-usual.
Maybe that is why the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) neglected to mention Fordham in its ranking of the 10 worst colleges for free speech earlier this month.
Fordham’s absence from the list was surprising, especially given Georgetown’s inclusion. Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, wrote on Huffington Post that Georgetown earned a place on the list due to its treatment of H*yas for Choice.
“Since 2010, the university has refused to recognize the student group H*yas for Choice, contending that its mission conflicts with that of the university,” Lukianoff wrote. “Written policy, however, states that ‘all members of the Georgetown University academic community … enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression,’ including the ‘right to express points of view on the widest range of public and private concerns.’”
H*yas for Choice has sometimes found itself at odds with the Georgetown administration due to the group’s promotion of access to contraceptives.
Hyas for Choice is fairly similar to SAGES (Students for Sex & Gender Equality and Safety), which began operating at Rose Hill last semester. SAGES, like Hyas for Choice, is not officially recognized by the university at which it operates. Unlike H*yas for Choice, SAGES operatives concealed their identities for some time due to fear of repercussions from the university.
When I interviewed Abigail Grace, president of H*yas for Choice, for a USA Today College story last semester, even she recognized that Fordham was more restrictive of contraception distribution than Georgetown.
“I think that H*yas for Choice’s case should make it very clear to Fordham administrators that it is possible to have an un-recognized, un-affiliated group distributing contraception on a Catholic campus,” Grace said.
Fordham’s website states that, “As an institution in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition, Fordham University follows Church teachings on reproductive issues. Distribution of contraceptives, contraceptive devices and/or birth control, in any form, is prohibited on Fordham University property and at University-sponsored events.”
Georgetown does not prevent H*yas for Choice from distributing condoms on Georgetown’s campus because the group is not officially university-sanctioned, nor does it use university resources.
Although SAGES does not use university resources, the group is still technically in breach of Fordham policy.
I respect (though I disagree with) the university’s stance on contraceptives. Still, it is nonsensical that SAGES is in violation of university policy when obtaining and distributing condoms using its own time and resources.
Furthermore, what exactly does “distribution” mean? Is handing a condom to your friend “distribution”? How about handing out condoms to three or four friends?
When I presented this question to Christopher Rodgers, dean of students at Fordham College Rose Hill, last semester, he responded essentially that administrators will know what distribution is when they see it.
This brand of murky shadow policy is dangerous. It allows the administration to essentially enforce policy whenever it conveniences them. After all, why has Fordham failed to take disciplinary action against SAGES? Surely the group’s dispersal of condoms at university events falls within the definition of “distribution.”
The easy answer to Fordham’s hypocrisy in dealing with SAGES is optics. Administrators understand that it would generate significant negative press if the university took disciplinary action against SAGES, so the group is allowed to operate relatively freely, flying in the face of Fordham policy.
SAGES is only the latest splashy example of Fordham’s free speech problem. Student groups face these problems every semester.
Administrators respond to criticism of the university’s free speech climate by claiming that the university almost never denies demonstrations or events the freedom to operate on campus. This is incredibly misleading.
Student-led initiatives have run into university roadblocks for years. Student attempts to produce The Vagina Monologues, for example, came to fruition only after independent support from academic programs allowed students to bypass the Office of Student Leadership & Community Development (OSLCD).
Fordham students must apply for permission to demonstrate on campus. This defeats the point of protesting. By requiring advance permission, Fordham guarantees that demonstrations almost never occur. Fordham claims that it almost never denies these requests, but it is troubling that students have to request the right to demonstrate in the first place.
Administrators claim that the regulations surrounding free speech at Fordham are identical to New York City’s policies. This is also untrue.
New Yorkers who wish to distribute handbills on a public sidewalk or in a public park, have a demonstration, rally or press conference on a public sidewalk, or march on a public sidewalk without using amplified sound, do not need any permits.
Fordham’s policies are more restrictive than New York City’s policies. And for what reason? Surely New York City has more significant safety concerns to weigh regarding free speech than Fordham does.
Matters are even worse for Resident Assistants (RAs), who operate under a near-constant state of low-boiling fear.
RAs with whom I have spoken privately disdain the intimidating behavior of the Office of Residential Life — and particularly that of its director, Kimberly Russell. Yet, when trying to get them to speak publicly, they are terrified of losing their jobs. Some RAs will not even voice their disapproval via private text message or email out of fear of reprisal.
As a former RA, I remember being told in training by Senior VP for Student Affairs Jeffrey Gray that it was unprofessional to criticize your employer. Disturbingly, Gray seemed to be referring to an event the year before in which several black RAs publicly questioned the university’s handling of a hate incident in which someone scrawled a racial slur on the door of a black RA. At least one of those RAs was not offered the RA position the following year.
This unapologetic act of intimidation is indicative of a wider culture. Matters have only worsened, and RAs have since been told they will be fired if they speak with members of the media (including The Fordham Ram). Other acts of intimidation are hardly uncommon.
Even staff members and faculty do not feel safe to speak freely at Fordham.
A number of Resident Directors (RDs) — both present and former — have quietly voiced their strong disapproval of Kimberly Russell and the management of the Office of Residential Life, but none of them will do so publicly.
Reviews of Russell on ebosswatch.com, an online review site where users can evaluate their employers, are 100 percent unfavorable. One review calls her “cruel,” though others are more harsh.
After I wrote an article for USA Today College last week regarding Fordham’s free speech problem, several former Residential Life employees reached out to thank me for saying what they were too afraid to say.
One message summed up the climate succinctly: “Great article on free speech — clearly I’m still in fear as I’m messaging you [privately]!”
Last year, a number of dissatisfied Residential Life employees reputedly left a thick folder of complaints documenting the Office of Residential Life’s mismanagement and the general environment of intimidation. These complaints appear to have resulted in no change whatsoever.
Professors are also not spared from Fordham’s free speech climate.
When I was writing a story last semester for USA Today College about SAGES, for example, none of the five professors I contacted were willing to speak with me on the record.
Even when students have attempted to reform Fordham’s free speech environment, they have largely — if not entirely — failed. United Student Government, for example, published a forty-five-page report on Fordham’s free speech problem in 2013, which, despite the valiant effort, bore no fruit.
Still, Fordham students should not give up hope. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), relies heavily on students and faculty to report free speech infringements, and I strongly encourage members of the Fordham community to file individual cases with FIRE on their website at http://www.TheFire.org/resources/submit-a-case/.
For the good of the university, students must stand up, speak out and demand free speech. We can not set the world on fire if the university keeps raining on our parade.
Canton Winer, FCRH ’15, and former Managing Editor of The Fordham Ram, is an American studies and sociology major from West Palm Beach, Florida. He has written about this topic for USA Today College.
This article has been updated to resemble its print edition.