How protected is free speech at Bowdoin College?


The current state of freedom of speech and expression on college campuses is broken. Increasingly, America’s colleges and universities have retreated from their historical position as bastions of free speech to become some of the most insular and least tolerant institutions in our society.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan group dedicated to defending college students’ constitutional rights, roughly 9 in 10 American colleges restrict free speech on campus. Of the institutions studied, 28.5 percent received a “red light” rating from FIRE, meaning their policies “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.

The erosion of free speech is becoming more acceptable with each new generation. A Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of millennials, the primary population on college campuses, believe the government should be able to prevent individuals from making offensive statements in public, while 58 percent believed it should not be prevented. In contrast, only 12 percent of the Silent Generation, 24 percent of Baby Boomers and 27 percent of Generation X believed such speech should be prevented by the government.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Even when explicit policies don’t prevent students from exercising their free speech rights, campuses often nurture an environment in which new or controversial ideas are unwelcome and discouraged. By empowering government education officials to silence speech, no matter its perception, we erode our founding principles and stifle the discussions that allow our society to grow and prosper. If education is the vehicle of human progress, academic freedom and open inquiry must be its twin engines.

What needs to be fixed at Bowdoin College?

Since they operate without direct government control, private institutions are subject to some different legal standards on free speech than public universities. Despite this, many of these institutions brand themselves as friendly to the First Amendment.

Several of Maine’s private institutions of higher learning, like Bowdoin College, have received unfavorable ratings from FIRE for enforcing rules that do not respect students’ freedom of expression. FIRE assigned Bowdoin a “yellow light” rating for maintaining policies that “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of vague wording, could to easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

Bowdoin’s Academic Honor Code and Social Code has been highlighted by FIRE for its overly broad language. A provision of the code reads, “The following activities, occurring on or off College premises, constitute breaches of the Social Code: 1. Conduct that is unbecoming of a Bowdoin student, whether physical, verbal, or sexual in nature. Examples include, but are not limited to: lewd or indecent behavior (or sponsorship thereof); abuse or assault; threats; intimidation; retaliation; harassment; coercion; behavior or activities that significantly disrupt the educational experience of other students; and other conduct that threatens, instills fear, or infringes upon the rights, dignity, and integrity of any person including through the use of social media or other means of electronic communication.

Under this loose definition, constitutionally-protected speech, both on or off campus (or in-person or on social media), can result in a violation. FIRE also calls into question the institution’s policy on bias and hate speech. The policy encourages students to report incidents they “interpret…as harmful to the Bowdoin community,” even if the incident or activity in question is protected speech. They’re also encouraged to report vandalism and graffiti “that communicate[s] offensive, hurtful, inappropriate or unwelcoming messages…” regardless of whether the message communicated represents protected speech.

While these incidents should certainly be condemned by the public, the college itself should not interfere with speech, even if it is perceived as biased or offensive. An exhaustive list of the flaws within Bowdoin College’s speech-related policies can be found here.

The Solution

To foster an educational environment most conducive to free expression, student groups, including student government organizations, should take action to push school administrators to revise these policies. This can include hosting free speech-focused events on campus or advancing a resolution within student government that adopts the University of Chicago statement or calls on the school to patch the holes within its student conduct code that have been exposed by FIRE. Individuals associated with the institution can also visit FIRE’s website to take action.