University of Pittsburgh YAL Free Speech Ball

In today’s age when so-called “safe spaces” and “free speech zones” are commonplace on college campuses, students more so than ever ought to be concerned about their first amendment rights on campus. The University of Pittsburgh’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter held an advocacy project on Tuesday to raise awareness about First Amendment protection and in particular to test a particular policy on Pitt’s campus. A giant beach ball known as the “Free Speech Ball” was inflated outside of one of the most heavily trafficked areas on campus. Interested students and passersby were handed markers and told they could write anything they wanted on the ball. Students were told that the goal of the project was to promote and exercise rights to free speech. Everything from politically incorrect statements to raunchy jokes made their way on to the ball.

At the same time this was happening, students were being asked to sign a petition for Pitt to adopt what are known as the Chicago principles in their code of conduct. The Chicago principles are a set of guidelines adopted by the University of Chicago that allow total freedom of expression and state that: ​“it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Pitt’s Young Americans for Liberty are making an effort to get the university to adopt this policy. It is a positive sign that Young Americans for Liberty was able to conduct this project at The University of Pittsburgh, because ambiguous policies in the university’s student code of conduct could potentially be applied to restrict such activities. All students at Pitt are required to uphold a “Commitment to Civility”. This policy stipulates that students are obliged to act in a manner which the administration deems “civil”. This is problematic, as the term civil is quite broad and carries a degree of subjectivity which could allow it to be applied arbitrarily by administrators. 

The revision of this policy should be a bipartisan concern as all political viewpoints are equally vulnerable to suppression under current policy. While maintaining a civil campus is certainly an admirable goal, it can be achieved in ways that do not restrict the rights of students. Students’ rights were protected during this recent demonstration, but unless policy is revised to be more in line with the Chicago principles, they may not be in the future.
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