Episodes like this, coming out of the wreckage we call higher education, raise at least three troubling questions:
1. If universities are this ignorant of the principle of free speech, why is anyone surprised that our younger generations are so willing to sacrifice it for political ends?
2. How can institutions run by administrators this immune to basic ethical decision-making reasoning be trusted to competently educate their students?
3. How many equally outrageous policies do schools inflict on their students that we don’t hear about?
FIRE, as usual, is on the case, and has written to the school to explain to them why this is abusive and a flagrant First Amendment violation. One student who had received a warning about her discussing about her suicidal feelings with her friends on campus, and was told not to have such conversations. She asked for clarification from Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage, writing,
Just to clarify, the email said that if I spoke to students about it that it would create a distraction—which could create disciplinary action against me. . . . I was also wondering if I respond to concerned people, is that enough to get me in trouble? I do not want to worry others by not responding and I do not want to have the possibility of getting expelled by reaching out to my friends during this emotionally trying time and I see the possibility of misunderstanding or getting more concerned.
Brundage responded by email, “You can certainly talk to your friends about how you are doing in general and set their minds at ease. You cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self destructive thoughts or actions. It is a very specific limitation.”
It is also an astoundingly dangerous, unconstitutional and unethical one. Popehat blogger Ken White, who has openly discussed his own struggles with clinical depression, consulted Dr. Mendel Feldsher, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry who has counseled students at the Claremont Colleges in California. Feldsher wrote in part,
A policy which prohibits college students from communicating their suicidal or self-harming thoughts with their peers promotes isolation and disconnectedness which increases the risk for suicide. The simple act of disclosing ones suicidal thinking to a friend can itself be quite therapeutic and can interrupt the crescendo of depressive cognitions which can lead a student to act on suicidal thinking. Communication with a friend is frequently the pivotal first step toward seeking help, and many students may be more willing to initially share their feelings with a friend than with a school official or therapist. Threatening disciplinary action for student to student communication regarding suicidal thinking sends the clear message, “You are an unacceptable burden to others” which is a harmful message, particularly to a student who is depressed and suicidal.
I’m no expert, but I want to append this with “of course.” It can’t be “of course,” though, can it, if highly paid educators who we entrust with training and nurturing our children’s minds don’t comprehend it, and have so little understanding of human nature or what it was like to be young that their instincts are to prevent students from seeking support from their friends and peers?
Having read the Bill of Rights, I would also say “of course” to the statement that a state institution must not ban campus speech based on content, and school administrators who are competent to oversee education must respect the principle of freedom of expression….which brings us back to those three questions.
Pointer and Facts: Popehat