by Rene A. Henry
SEATTLE, Wash., Dec. 7 – In the 1960s college campuses throughout the country were in turmoil as students demonstrated against the Vietnam war. Now a half-a-century later, there again is unrest on college campuses as students want to reinterpret the First Amendment, redefine free speech and rewrite history by erasing historical facts.

 

            Some protestors even want any name and image of President Woodrow Wilson removed from Princeton where he also was the president. Because of possible cultural controversy, Harvard no longer uses the word “master” for the heads of its residence halls and is considering changing the seal of the law school. Dr. Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, took a different stance when he said that today’s students are too sensitive and expect too much coddling and that the university is “not a day care.”

 

            I had a crisis in 1992 when I was executive director of university relations and on the president’s executive cabinet at Texas A&M University. I was spearheading a coalition campaign by the state’s major public universities to overturn the Texas legislature’s mandated across-the-board 10 percent cut in funding for higher education when the student newspaper defamed the leader of the legislature’s Black caucus.

 

            As part of our campaign my president met regularly with groups of Black business and community leaders and university alumni and also spoke at Sunday services in African-American churches in Houston and Dallas.

 

            Then when an A&M fraternity had pledges dress as slaves one weekend the leader of the Black caucus demanded discipline. The student newspaper responded with an editorial that the legislator should mind his own business and stay out of anything involving the college. A racist cartoon accompanied the editorial depicting a member of the Aggie Corps of Cadets in senior boots holding out a bone labeled “multiculturalism” to a small dog next to a fire plug with a label “The First Amendment.” The words “State Rep. Ron” were by the dog with a balloon reading “Yap! Yap! Yap!” The Aggie’s balloon was “Here … maybe this will shut him up!”

            As it should, this outraged the Black legislator, the Black caucus, and also Governor Ann Richards who demanded an apology. While the student led Inter-Fraternity Council met to discipline the fraternity I arranged for the editors and cartoonist to meet with my president, the provost and me. We told the students that the legislature indeed had a great deal to do with the university’s affairs, especially funding, and that free speech must be used with discretion and good judgment. They also were told that under the First Amendment there are exceptions to free speech protection when defamation, libel and slander and involved. The students disagreed and refused to apologize.

 

            When I called the newspaper’s faculty advisor in the Journalism School he said he saw no reason to interfere because he believed the students exercised free speech privileges of the media. I explained how this could impact what to date had been a favorable campaign to rescind the legislature’s mandated cut, how it would impact Texas A&M, and there needed to be an apology because I believed there had been a clear case of abuse of free speech.

 

            We were at an impasse with the students and the journalism faculty and in jeopardy of destroying relationships with the governor, the state legislature and the Black community. To do the right thing and apologize we decided to have my office issue a news release that quoted me making the apology on behalf of the students.

 

            In the widely distributed news release I cited the students’ immaturity, naiveté, poor judgment and lack of understanding of the First Amendment as related to defamation, libel and slander combined with a lack of leadership and oversight by the faculty advisor. The apology was accepted in Austin. The fraternity was disciplined. There was no further word from the student editors or journalism school faculty. The editors continued to call me regularly for information regarding activities of the university.

 

            The aggressive, proactive marketing communications campaign used sports as a major tool to deliver the message and it resulted in the legislature not only rescinding its mandated 10 percent cut, but increasing overall funding for higher education by 6.8 percent representing a positive swing of more than $1 billion.

 

Rene A. Henry spent 10 years of his professional career in higher education and is the author of nine books. In his book “Communicating In A Crisis” he devotes one chapter just to crises in colleges and universities. He is a past chair of the PRSA College of Fellows.