Catawba Valley Community College vs. FIRE, Free Speech and Fairness

Wait a minute...YES! It's FIRE to the rescue!!

Will someone please  tell me what is going on with colleges and universities lately?

Has there been a collective nervous breakdown among administrators? Is the stress getting to be too much? As the walls close in, with institutions realizing that they are charging far too much for diplomas that neither signify knowledge nor enhance employability, are they abusing power in a futile effort to pretend they are in control of a deteriorating situation beyond their control? I don’t know, but thank heaven for the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education, whose mission of protecting students and academics from abusive restrictions on their rights of free though and expression on university campuses is more crucial than ever.

FIRE’s latest rescue mission was on behalf of Marc Bechtol, a student at Catawba Valley Community College in North Carolina. In June, the College announced that all students would receive a CVCC branded Debit Mastercard according to the institution’s partnership with Higher One, a financial services company. The debit card also serves as the official student ID, so there was no way to opt out of the arrangement. In order to activate his card, Bechtol and other students were required to supply their Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and student numbers. Bechtol smelled a rat, and he has a good nose: this arrangement may be legal, but it is unethical. The school is forcing students to do business with a for-profit entity that will have access to sensitive and personal data. Bechtol objected to CVCC and Higher One  marketing its checking accounts through emails to students, making claims that they would get their tuition refunds and Pell Grants faster if they opened Higher One accounts.  One such email had the subject line, “Want your refund? Activate your CVCC Onecard today!”

After Bechtol activated his own debit card, he said he received a marketing phone call from Orchard Bank, trying to get him to apply for a credit card—smoking gun evidence that his proprietary information, forced out of him by his college, was being sold to marketing firms. Annoyed, Bechtol sharply criticized CVCC’s unethical partnership with Higher One on the school’s Facebook page, writing “Did anyone else get a bunch of credit card spam in their CVCC inbox today? So, did CVCC sell our names to banks, or did Higher One? I think we should register CVCC’s address with every porn site known to man. Anyone know any good viruses to send them? …OK, maybe that would be a slight overreaction.”

One week after posting this, Bechtol was taken out of a class by the CVCC Executive Officer of Student Services and told that he would not be permitted to return. He then received a letter from the school stating that his Facebook comment “indicates possible malicious action against the college,” and thus violated CVCC’s conveniently flexible policy against a “commission of any other offense which, in the opinion of the administration or faculty, may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community.”  Accordingly, Bechtol was suspended, without a hearing, and was banned from campus for two semesters.

This is corruption and abuse of power epitomized. The college’s sweet deal with the financial services company, essentially selling its own students and their personal data without their voluntary consent, was threatened by one of the victims of its betrayal and greed, who threatened to spoil the party by rousing the student body to oppose their exploitation. The college trumped up an offense to remove him from the equation and in so doing simultaneously let any other potential rabble-rouser know that the college would move swiftly and mercilessly to protect its interests. Bechol’s Facebook comments posed no threat, except to CVCC’s unethical scheme to the detriment of its students. If they didn’t know that, the administrators are too dull to run a lemonade stand, much less an institution of higher learning. But they did know that. They just wanted to punish Bechtol for telling the truth.

Then FIRE came to the rescue.

FIRE wrote CVCC president Garrett D. Hinshaw, pointing out the obvious: that the Facebook comment was protected speech. FIRE also noted that the policy CVCC cited to suspend Bechtol was unconstitutionally vague, as it did not give students sufficient information to know what is and is not permitted, thus subjecting them to arbitrary actions by administrators. “Catawba Valley Community College violated the First Amendment by responding to obviously hyperbolic criticism with swift and severe punishment,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in a press release. “Marc Bechtol must be allowed to return to class.”

And so he has been. The college abandoned its persecution of Bechtol, and dropped all sanctions. Of course, the school’s action still placed a chill on the free speech of other students; the offensively vague policies remain in place, and the deal with Higher One continues. Most ominous of all, the power-abusing, dishonest and oppressive administrators still reign, with their warped values and willingness to bully and threaten students. Fire says that it will be watching Catawba Valley Community College closely.

Let’s hope so.

13 thoughts on “Catawba Valley Community College vs. FIRE, Free Speech and Fairness

  1. This is the typical smug arrogance of academia. It’s not even a liberal/conservative thing. It’s the attitude that says “We’re smarter than you are, so you should just shut up and never ever question our vastly superior intellect.”

    …which eventually leads to “We’re SO much smarter than you that we know what’s best for you even better than you do–even if we’ve never actually met you.”

    –Dwayne

  2. I agree completely about this case, and I agree that there seem to have been a lot of variations on this theme lately: a college or university applying ridiculous standards to stifle free speech or free choice by faculty and/or students.

    I got a link to this story up on the Curmudgeon Central FB page a couple days ago, but I’m in rehearsal now, so I don’t have as much time to stay caught up on the blog. There have been other cases, too–one of which I wrote about a few days ago, a couple that neither of us have written about.

    If there is any silver lining here, it’s that these stories still qualify as news when we’re talking about the academic world. When corporations employ similar tactics to their employees or even their customers, it isn’t.

    • Should they, though, Rick? A corporation has no obligation to let employees publicly trash their employer, and there are laws that prevent egregious abuses, as well as civil suits. Students in colleges are often minors, and colleges are supposed to be in loco parentis, not trying to squeeze them. Customers also have more power relative to companies. I think the reason schools vs student abuses are more newsworthy is that they seem like betrayals and abuses of trust.

      • Those same laws apply in a university setting, and very few students, even freshmen, are in fact minors… unable to legally buy a beer, perhaps, but that’s another matter. The notion of in loco parentis was so eroded in the late ’60s and early ’70s that it pretty much doesn’t apply except when some enterprising lawyer wants to pretend it does.

        Universities find themselves in an untenable situation: they can get sued if, for example, a student is raped in her dorm room, but they can’t forbid 24-hour visitation. The list is long (my Dad was a college president while many of these changes were happening).

        And while I agree with you that students aren’t the same as customers, a lot of state legislatures wouldn’t agree.

        Finally, I’d note that what happened at Catawba Valley is simply the newest and most egregious manifestation of a phenomenon that has been burgeoning for over a generation: exclusive deals are nothing new. It is, in fact, commonplace for exclusivity to be written into contracts for everything from vending machines to ATMs to fast-food outlets in the student center. At one level, these deals work to the benefit of the students: you can buy a Coke for a dime less because the Coke people don’t have to worry about your buying a Pepsi instead, and the school gets a nickel from every purchase. (I’m making those numbers up, but you understand the principle.) Everybody wins… except Pepsi. And Pepsi fans. And people who don’t really have a preference, but would like a choice. And anything that looks like a free market. Other than that, though…

        • But don’t you think this reaches the point where it has to be stopped—especially when the vendor is selling information that the students have no choice but to provide? I know this is an example of boiling the frog slowly, but at some point we have to tell the colleges that they can’t keep it up. Especially with the sleazy and desperate crowd running banks and financial services—I want a choice regarding who I get in bed with.

            • The punitive action for the Facebook post was so outrageous that I keep forgetting about the card deal. It is really worthy of a separate post, but I need to do the research. How common is this? Are there any legal restrictions? Off hand, I have no idea.

              • This is the first I’ve heard of this particular idea. It’s the next logical step in the spiral downward, but a hitherto unattempted one, to my knowledge.

                • Evidently HigherOne has contracts with a lot of colleges & universities. As an educator, I’m appalled that anyone, particularly students, would be forced to provide their personal information to a banking institution that obviously turns around and sells it. This bothers me as much as the free speech issue. Do you not have a right to control your private information? Information linked to your financial business? The letter Marc sent the administration was right on the money. And the administration of CVCC has acted in a cowardly, craven manner. Shame on them.

  3. Colleges used to be run by faculty. Senior faculty members would be promoted to department heads, then deans, then provosts, and finally presidents. Their whole career, they would teach and be in contact with students. The faculty used to have a strong voice, including the ability to remove a sitting president if they felt it was necessary.

    Today’s administrators often have little to no experience teaching. They also have almost complete power over the schools. The faculty have been reduced to powers similar to those of the Queen of England “the power to be informed, the power to be consulted, the power to advise”. The administration has also made it so that any faculty member, tenured or not, can be removed by the president (often the last step in a dismissal appeal is that the President gets to decide the outcome). The Boards of Trustees that govern such institutions are packed with businessmen and prominent people from the community who are given such positions as a political favor. The presidents know such boards don’t dig deeply into the affairs of the school, they only see enrollments and how much money the school has. As a result, the administration’s goals are keep the board happy, have a large enrollment, and keep a positive cashflow through any means necessary.

    As you can see, this leads to a situation where the adminstration’s goals have little to do with the traditional goals of institutions of higher learning (education, exploring new ideas, original research) and is, in fact actively hostile to several of them.

    Now, what I have written generally doesn’t apply to the major universities. Their faculty have generally been able to hold on to some power over the school and their presidents are usually eminient scholars. At the smaller schools and community colleges, you often have the situation where a local businessman is put in charge to ‘clean up the school” and ‘make it more efficient’. Such people are used to having their ways, having their orders obeyed, and firing those who don’t comply. This tends not to work well with students.

  4. But who will do something to stop Catawba from essentially linking student IDs to a credit card company? Can’t this be argued as illegal? How can they possibly make a case for this? Forcing students to provide personal information linked to a financial institution, which then sells the information to other credit card companies? I would like someone to look at the Catawba Board, and see who is connected with the “Higher One” corporation. Bet you’ll find one.

    As far as I’m concerned, Catawba’s requirement that student IDs are linked to debit cards is unethical coercion of the worst kind, and (see below) is likely or should be illegal for a non-profit institution. And I’m sure collusion will be found there somewhere.

    I’m surprised that only one student (and kudos to him) raised this issue. I would think the student body as a whole would have refused to knuckle under to this kind of tyranny on the part of the college’s administration.

    This is more than a “shame, shame” situation. It is an ugly, and I’m sure moneymaking scheme, on the part of the College, and frankly, it should be an IRS issue as well. Since when can a 501(c)(3) institution, which pays no taxes, force the objects of its “mission” (i..e., its students) engage in an activity which will profit someone else? Look at that Board, guys…

  5. What account was this card linked to? I wonder if they linked it directly to the student’s college account and if money was loaded into the account through their tuition and financial aid. I doubt very many students would complain. They have been bred in the police-state public schools to do whatever they are told to do: go through metal detectors, only have see-though bags so we can search them easier, take this drug test, wear this ID prominently, don’t talk in class or get a ticket for disorderly conduct from the campus police officer. After 13 years of that, why would a required debit card raise any questions?

  6. What did this young man write on his Facebook that, once upon a time, wouldn’t have been printed freely in the college newspaper? Did he threaten to burn down the ROTC building or organize a takeover of the Dean’s office? His inquiry was merely a questioning of a strange and disturbing procedure that needed to be questioned. For that, he was expelled without the bare formality of a hearing.

    When you see that happening- in any venue- one needs to go on full alert. So do the regents and the community whose tax monies help pay for this college’s operations. Public colleges (and school systems) belong to their supporting citizens. They particularly belong to those parents who send their children there and pay tuition besides. Any question of immoral practices among school officials on any level need to be taken seriously.

    Those are our kids. They cannot be left in the hands of administrators or instructors who are, themselves, corrupted. As I’ve often said: Depravity- unchecked- only leads to more and greater depravity. It’s true in the culture. It’s VERY true in the schools.

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