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Nineteen Eighty-Fordham: Free Speech Under Attack

institution administration


Fordham University


Nineteen Eighty-Fordham: Free Speech Under Attack

Fordham’s Rich Tradition of Censoring its Students Is Decidedly Anti-Jesuit

Liam Semple


Read Time: 10 minutes.
Graphics by Claire Dillon.

The Battle for Campus Free Speech is on-going, and Fordham may be a decisive battleground.

Yes, Fordham is celebrating its second consecutive year on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech. Why it’s there is important not only to you, but to our national conversation.

The mainstream media has seen a renewed interest in campus free speech this decade. A quick search of The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal reveals page after page of op-eds and news reports discussing the rise and limits of intolerant campus liberalism in the last five years.

Indeed, Fordham joins FIRE’s ranking alongside such high-profile disasters as UC Berkeley and Evergreen State College. The students of UC Berkeley, alongside presumed non-student Antifa protesters, took to destroying their own campus and assaulting each other in protest of a talk by alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos – a discomforting night of historical irony. The University later spent over $1.5 million protecting guests Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter from student violence. Evergreen State’s controversy began when the school’s Administration amended the terms of its annual Day of Absence. Until 2017, the Day was for students of color to voluntarily leave campus as a demonstration of their presence in student life. The Administration changed the terms to invite white students and faculty to remain home. Biology Professor Bret Weinstein wrote an email strongly disagreeing with the policy change, and later resigned after the college was unable to protect him from unrelenting student hostility.

It is easy to diagnose why the national conversation has focused on the question of how students react to disagreeable speech. While it would be misguided to downplay the importance of intolerant students, it is just as important we do not lose sight of another, less publicized enemy of campus free speech: Universities with rich traditions of totalitarian censorship.

This is where Fordham joins FIRE’s list of Worst Colleges for Free Speech.

First off, it is pertinent to know that students at Fordham require permission from the Dean of Students (Christopher Rodgers at Rose Hill, Keith Eldredge at Lincoln Center) to protest. The “Demonstrations FAQ” section of the Student Handbook lays out the case for this process, assuring readers of its swiftness, and arguing that the short series of red-tape hoops ensure student protests don’t interfere with regular campus activity (the FAQ acknowledges protests are often intended to be disruptive). But if this is truly the official reasoning for requiring permission, why not at least designate areas of campus for free demonstration? Why not create a registry for campus activities that ensures their protection to and from protest or counter-protest? While I would still disagree with these policies, they would at least exhibit some consistency.

Mandating requests for demonstration, on the whole, ensures that fewer demonstrations occur, regardless of the Handbook’s assurance that no protest has ever been denied on the basis of opinion. In light of the events at Berkeley, Fordham’s administration might simply be trying to avoid student violence. However, bottlenecking the number of student demonstrations seems both ineffectual and overkill as a solution to intolerant campus liberalism – it does not engage with disagreeable ideas, and it restricts the free expression of all ideas, not simply ‘undesirable’ ones.

But doesn’t this system simply ensure that only truly committed demonstrators receive permission? Yes, if we are to take the Student Handbook at its word. I find this a dubious proposition, as might potential demonstrators dissuaded by both Deans’ recent histories of insensitivity toward students, and subsequent protection from penalty. These events are emblematic of previously-reported issues of fear tactics being deployed by faculty against students.

Yes, even beyond Dean Rodgers’s now-infamous mandatory screening of a PragerU video claiming there is “no evidence that [campus] sexual violence is a cultural norm” (for which he received "recommendations"), Fordham’s Residential Assistants have endured a disturbing Orwellian culture of censorship and fear-mongering from Residential Life itself.

An article published to Fordham Daily three years ago describes an “uncomfortable combination of professional neglect and personal surveillance from top-level Residential Life staffers.” Accusations include Residential Life Director Kimberly Russell using Grindr, a dating app targeted at gay males, to expose gay Resident Assistants, and authoritarian leveraging to bully Resident Assistants into silent obedience. Senior Vice President for Student Affairs, Jeffrey Gray, is quoted in the article as saying “speaking out against Residential Life or the University is a fireable offense.”

The accusations against Kimberly Russell are indisputably indefensible, and thus not worth further comment. As for the Vice President Gray quotation, we will return to that later.

Most recent in Fordham's series of free speech violations is the one that landed Fordham on FIRE’s list to begin with. Prospective chapter Students for Justice in Palestine was approved by the United Student Government. But as you might be aware, the club has yet to assemble. Ladies and gentlemen, our entry in “The 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech, 2018”:

“[Lincoln Center] Dean of Students Keith Eldredge overruled the USG and denied recognition to SJP, writing that he ‘cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country’ and that ‘the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … often leads to polarization rather than dialogue.’

On Jan. 25, 2017, FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Fordham, calling on the university to reverse its rejection of SJP in keeping with its free speech promises. Instead, Fordham doubled down and even went so far as to sanction students protesting the University’s decision….

Members of the prospective SJP chapter fought back and filed a lawsuit against Fordham on April 26, 2017. Again, rather than admitting its errors, Fordham continued to stand by its disregard for free association…. On Jan. 3, Fordham defended its actions in court by offering a shifting array of justifications for its behavior, each less believable than the last, eventually claiming that the students could start a group, so long as it didn’t use the [SJP] name — a claim that directly contradicts the University’s written explanations for why it denied official recognition to the group.” - FIRE

There are plenty of embarrassments to be mocked here. Firstly, denying students’ right to assembly in order to avoid ideological conflict at a University is pure comedy. As a Dean of Students, if you feel like dialogue might engender violence, or is in any way unproductive, it is your job as a University Administrator to facilitate its productivity. Secondly, sanctioning students who retaliate against their silencing speaks more to a fear of students’ ideas than fear of conflict arising from their proliferation. It is also an unambiguous instance of fear-mongering. Thirdly, limp “ah, um” responses to criticism indicate an awareness among those who rejected SJP that SJP is not in violation of any specific codes.

You can read a timeline of events and media coverage related to Students for Justice in Palestine here, and follow SJP’s Facebook here.


What right does Fordham have to censor its students time and time again? The truth is: every right. Private institutions like Fordham are not bound by the First Amendment, and do not have to recognize your rights to assembly and free speech. This is because private institutions do not have the same powers as the federal government, and thus such restrictions would not disturb the democratic process. This means that Vice President Jeffrey Gray’s assurance that “speaking out against Residential Life or the University is a fireable offense” is also perfectly legal. Fordham is hardly the first private entity to punish dissent.

What we face as a community of students and faculty is not a question of legal right, but of ethical good. Plenty of legal behaviors are nonetheless morally bankrupt.

I wonder how Fordham’s enrollment would fare if High School Seniors were aware of just the past year of fear and silencing on both campuses? Especially when Fordham’s mission statement looks, unsarcastically, like this:

“Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, is committed to the discovery of Wisdom and the transmission of Learning, through research and through undergraduate, graduate and professional education of the highest quality. Guided by its Catholic and Jesuit traditions, Fordham fosters the intellectual, moral and religious development of its students and prepares them for leadership in a global society.” – Fordham Mission Statement

Saying you will work tirelessly to nurture students’ inquiry and morality, only to punish criticisms of campus authority, attempt to silence Resident Assistants and demonstrators through fear tactics, and deny students’ rights to assemble in their search for truth and justice is either shameful hypocrisy or shameful incompetence.

It is impossible to reconcile the censorship of open discussion with Jesuit values, period.

For a second consecutive year, it is officially a national disgrace how feebly Fordham attempts to uphold its own Mission Statement. This is why we are recognized by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as one of the worst schools for free speech in America.

And do not pretend that the precedings have merely been lawyerly cherry-picking in support of a predetermined argument. I approached these stories with an open mind, weighed the benefits of each action and policy to Fordham as a community of both students and faculty. Objectively, Fordham’s free speech record is a pattern of verifiable incidents indicating a broader culture of censorship and fear. I entirely support Fordham’s mission, and I believe, truly, that Fordham’s Administration is not our enemy, but I cannot perform the mental gymnastics necessary to stomach its Orwellian actions.

I will leave you with this quote from our University President, proudly displayed on our University website:

“We believe that students have to be invited to wrestle with the great ethical issues of their time. We want them to be bothered by the realization that they don’t know everything and bothered by injustice." - University President, Father Joseph McShane
I couldn’t agree more, and you're damn right we're bothered.