No Cajoling or Proselytizing -- We're a University!

Hampton University decided to enforce a quite remarkable provision in its Code of Conduct, which says that

to accost, cajole, or proselytize students, faculty or staff, parents or others, to engage in gender and sexual harassment, use vile, obscene or abusive language or exhibit lewd behavior, to possess weapons such as knives or firearms, or to be involved in the possession, use, distribution of and sale of illegal drugs is strictly prohibited and is in direct violation of the Hampton University Code, on or off campus.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,

Seven students at the private institution faced trouble with Hampton administrators after November 2, when they and others spent about half an hour in Hampton’s student center passing out [anti-Bush] flyers on issues including Hurricane Katrina, the Sudan, and the Iraq war. Police officers confronted the students, who did not believe they needed permission to hand out the flyers and who were eventually charged with offenses such as “posting unauthorized materials” and “actions to cajole or proselytize students.” A November 28 letter from Dean of Men Woodson H. Hopewell informed the students that they could face penalties up to expulsion for these activities, which at a public university would be protected under the First Amendment. . . .

Last weekend, at least five of the seven students involved in the flyer distribution discovered that rather than being expelled, they had been sentenced to 20 hours each of community service. A similar punishment is expected for the two remaining students. The university also released a statement saying in part that “Hampton University has always and continues to be a champion of free speech and free expression.”

This strikes me as a pretty shocking action for a university, even a private university, to take. Private universities are not bound by the First Amendment; but in my view even a private university, to fulfill its function, must provide a broad degree of academic freedom to students, and deserves criticism if it does not, especially if it asserts that it "has always and continues to be a champion of free speech and free expression." And this is especially so when the restrictions are so broad as to prohibit any speech that "cajole[s] or proselytiz[es]" — apt descriptions for a wide range of persuasive communication of ideas — and in particular to prohibit the distribution of flyers. (The university's position might be more defensible if it were limited solely to speech that urges a walkout from classes, which some of the flyers did; but this was not the only or even the main grounds that the university cited.)

In any case, it's good that FIRE is fighting these cases, though it's too bad that it has to.

UPDATE: My original quote from the Code of Conduct was incorrect — I tried to focus only on the relevant portions of the text by saying that the Code "prohibits 'accost[ing], cajol[ing], or proselytiz[ing] students, faculty or staff, parents or others, to engage in gender and sexual harassment, use vile, obscene or abusive language or exhibit lewd behavior,'" but this suggested that the Code only barred cajoling in order toengage in harassment. That's not what the Code does; it bars cajoling/proselytizing, it bars harassment, it bars weapons possession, and it bars drug possession (the last two of which are clearly not relevant here) — that's why FIRE's and my substantive criticisms are correct, since the prohibition on cajoling/proselytizing is quite independent of the other prohibitions. To quote the material accurately, I should have revised "to engage in" to say instead "[or] engag[ing] in." But instead I decided just to quote the item with a minimum of revision; the changed text above reflects this. My apologies to readers Steve and Brad, who were confused by this.