Regulating Speech: Not a Job for LSA

Student government should not become the arbiter of campus free speech.

By Maroon Editorial Board

Recently, the Law School’s conservative Edmund Burke Society drew condemnation for an offensive whip sheet, which promoted an upcoming debate by comparing immigration to “inviting disease into the body politic.” The society apologized, and the debate was canceled.

Considering the scale of the backlash, it’s no surprise that some want student government to play a larger role in regulating organizations like the Burke Society. The Maroon understands this sentiment, but too much involvement from the Law Students Association (LSA) could set a dangerous precedent for student government as a gatekeeper of campus politics.

Initially, LSA, which controls funding for Law School Student Organizations (LSSOs) such as the Burke Society, considered defunding the group. However, University administrators informed LSA that defunding would violate campus free speech policies, and wasn’t authorized by LSA’s own bylaws.

Now, LSA is discussing additional policies that would allow it to cut funding if another LSSO is similarly offensive. One proposal would establish standards of “civility, respect and professionalism” for LSSOs, while another would prevent LSA funds from being used to “disrespect, denigrate, or threaten a population represented at the law school.”

It’s hard to foresee where this language could be applied in the future. For instance: might LSA justify taking sides on an issue like Israel–Palestine? No one except LSA itself can say what “civility,” or “disrespect,” or “professionalism” would mean, and where they’d be applied.

Not only could these policies threaten speech on campus, but they would also be dangerous to the credibility of LSA. If LSA’s officers were in charge of deciding which viewpoints are offensive, then their elections would run the risk of becoming proxy wars over hot-button issues, preventing the organization from doing its job.

Moreover, the proposed language is not nearly as content-neutral as it sounds; determinations about offensiveness are inherently political. On especially contentious political issues, it’s hard to say where protected viewpoints end and offensive rhetoric begins, and nothing good would come of letting student government decide.

There may well be larger issues of climate to address at the Law School, but using LSA to defund LSSOs would be an ineffective way of solving them. Under its bylaws, LSA will never allocate more than 3 percent of its funding to a single group, and the Burke Society has received just $600 in funding this year—hardly an irreplaceable sum if its funding were cut.

Especially considering that the group has faculty members and supporters who don’t need LSSO status to organize events, it seems unlikely that a loss of official sanction would do much more than anger members and deepen existing divides.

Of course, there are plenty of cases in which defunding is reasonable. LSA clearly shouldn’t sponsor a group that threatens violence or directly harasses students, and The Maroon supports the development of explicit policies to that effect. But the policies under discussion would go far beyond banning direct threats. Regardless of how you feel about the University’s free speech policies, imposing more restrictive ones cannot, and should not, be the job of student government.