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Is Pepperdine Limiting Free Speech to its Students?

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Today we got an email from a concerned Pepperdine alumn whose words made us think that there just might be trouble in paradise

Dear Editor:

As an alumnus of Pepperdine University, I am deeply troubled by recent events at the University and the active suppression of free speech on campus. Pepperdine, like all American colleges, should be an “open marketplace for ideas” rather than an agent for indoctrination. Unfortunately, the University continues to practice blatant censorship and viewpoint discrimination which further tarnishes its reputation.

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In October 2006, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Pepperdine the lowest possible rating for what it deemed to be clear and substantial restrictions on the freedom of speech on campus. It cited several examples of questionable speech codes in Pepperdine’s Student Handbook that prohibit “[a]ctions or language that constitute disrespect”, “[e]xhibition, possession, or distribution of material or representations deemed to be obscene or contrary to the moral standards and/or mission of the University”, and the “display [of] alcohol containers or drug related paraphernalia on University property.” Banning materials that promote alcohol consumption is a clear violation because it unambiguously restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint. It is true that most private colleges do not have to obey the First Amendment. However, because Pepperdine operates in California, it is bound by the Leonard Law which gives students at private schools the same rights as those at public schools.

One egregious example of Pepperdine’s wrongheaded policies is seen in the recent denial of recognition and student activity funding to the Malibu Gays, Lesbians and Everyone Else (GLEE) Club. I don’t know if the Leonard Law places a duty on Pepperdine to adhere to content neutrality in funding student groups. But, the University is in clear violation of the law if it makes a rule subjecting students to “disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech”. I believe this is precisely what Pepperdine has done by listing “[p]articipation in student organizations not recognized by the University” as an example of “misconduct subject to disciplinary action” in the Student Handbook and then denying University recognition to GLEE on the basis of speech.

Overwhelming jurisprudence exists requiring that public universities adhere to the principle of content neutrality in funding decisions. According to FIRE, "[t]he Supreme Court ruled in University of Wisconsin v. Southworth (2000), that requiring students to pay [student activity fees] is constitutional as long as the university forbids its officials or agents from considering a group's viewpoint when deciding whether to fund it." Moreover, "the Supreme Court held in [Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia (1995)], that denying funding to a group because of the viewpoint it advocates violates the First Amendment's prohibition on viewpoint discrimination." Unfortunately, as a private institution, Pepperdine can probably continue practicing viewpoint discrimination when funding student groups. However, if the University intends to continue assaulting free speech on campus, it should cease promoting itself to prospective students as a liberal arts institution and it should remove the commitment to "truth" and "freedom" in its mission statement. It's not and it isn't. In practice, Pepperdine furthers its own ideological and religious agenda by funding only organizations that promote that agenda. This practice is unethical and it may violate the contractual obligation that the University has undertaken to students with whom it has promised a liberal arts education in a setting in which the free marketplace of ideas prevails.

Nowhere, however, is the battle against student free speech more visible than in Ken Starr's representation of the Bush Administration in the "Bong hits 4 Jesus" Supreme Court case. Mr. Starr is the controversial former prosecutor who was charged with investigating the Whitewater land transaction, but ended up delving into the private details of Bill Clinton's sex life. Today, he serves as the dean of Pepperdine's School of Law and has accepted pro-bono work arguing that student speech "may be banned if it is inconsistent with a school's basic educational mission." This is a disturbing argument because, as Justice Samuel Alito stated, "schools have and they can define their educational mission so broadly that they can suppress all sorts of political speech and speech expressing fundamental values of the students, under the banner of getting rid of speech that's inconsistent with educational missions." One wonders if Justice Alito learned about this nefarious practice during his recent visit to Pepperdine's campus in September.

Regardless, the consequences of infringing student speech are sobering. If young people are taught at such an early age to surrender their First Amendment rights in high school and college settings, they will be ill equipped to exercise and defend their constitutional protections in the future. Pepperdine should reconsider its immoral and shameless policies before it is forced to justify them to alumni, donors and prospective students.


Nicholas Berg
Pepperdine Alum '01


photo by sam kim