Regarding freedom of speech on campuses

Dear editors,

I was disturbed by the report in the March 31, 2011 issue of The Cluster that a university official poured water on two chalkings by Mercer students about abortion: one that pictured a crossed-out coat hanger with the words “Mercerians against wire hangers” and another that said “College parties = unwanted pregnancies.”

According to The Cluster, the official took this action because she believed that the chalkings were “offensive” and therefore violated Mercer’s Community of Respect.

Courts have often struck down campus speech codes at public universities on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment. As a private university, Mercer has more leeway to restrict speech, and I understand the university’s desire, expressed in the Community of Respect document, to promote an environment in which all members of the Mercer community are “treated with respect and civility.” It is not clear to me, however, that the chalkings in fact violated Mercer’s code.

Moreover, if they did, their removal demonstrates the difficulty entailed in drafting a code that accomplishes its end without having the undesirable effect of suppressing the expression of ideas. Both of the chalkings at issue expressed views material to a rational debate and genuine exchange of ideas about abortion.

– Dr. Rosalind Simson, Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies