A few weeks ago, unusual posters that asked provocative questions about race, sexuality and censorship appeared on the walls of the College. These posters were put up by the Literature Club as part of Banned Book Week, but their purpose extended beyond that of promoting the national celebration of forbidden literature. The club was attempting to bring awareness to the lack of freedom of speech on college campuses, specifically at Ramapo.
The posters drew inspiration from books that are banned right now in some places in the U.S. Those books include “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “The Autobiography of Malcom X” co-authored by Alex Haley and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. The text on the posters, however, is only half of the message; they also have large blank spaces on them – an invitation for students to write what they feel.
“We specifically put up posters that had blank space, and it was an opportunity for students to write anything. Some of them had questions about what they think they’re doing here on campus, very general questions,” said Corbin Hirschhorn, president of the Literature Club. “But we were wondering if anybody would utilize this space to address what students are complaining about – whether it's the commuter issue with the new schedule, that student opinion doesn’t seem to get considered by the administration, the sexual assault on campus, which I think is a pretty current issue, and maybe giving people the chance to question policy making.”
For Hirschhorn and the rest of the Literature Club, the issue of banned books is not just one that affects provincial Midwestern towns. The banning of books deals with censorship and freedom of speech, something that relates to everyone, specifically, according to Hirschhorn, members of the Ramapo community during this time of drastic policy and structural changes.
“Our big question is, is policy really what’s going to help these issues or is giving students a space to talk about it going to do it, because if you go around campus you don’t really see a lot of free speech,” Hirschhorn said.
The College has made efforts to include student opinion in some aspects of policy making. The administration has held several open forums and SGA-led “town hall meetings.” President Mercer, too, has worked to be more visible on campus, hosting monthly meetings with student leaders on campus in an attempt to understand the problems and solutions the student body can offer up.
“President Mercer and the administration value student input on campus matters and engage with them whenever possible,” said Cathleen Davey, the vice president of institutional advancement and the executive director the Ramapo College Foundation. “Students serve on the Board of Trustees, the President's Advisory Council, the Provost's Council, the Board of Governors and many other campus committees. Also, President Mercer frequently meets with student leaders, SGA members and hosts opportunities for students to meet with him.”
Many of these efforts have been reactionary, students say, leaving some dissatisfied with the decisions made regarding things like the schedule change and the revised alcohol and gathering policies.
The Literature Club’s movement reflects that frustration. The posters were put up without the consent of the Center for Student Involvement, which has specific posting policies for what goes up on the walls of the school. According to Hirschhorn, the fact that the posters were unauthorized was part of the issue itself.
“One question you could ask is who owns the walls of a public state college,” he said. “You go around the halls and you see advertisements for other colleges, you see advertisements from Verizon. These are all commercial things. Were those approved by somebody or did somebody come in and put those up and nobody stopped them?”
According to Ramapo’s current posting policy, all signs, notices, fliers, posters and banners that are hung or passed out must be approved by CSI. Clubs and organizations that are found to be in violation of these rules can lose their ability to post and may be subject to the loss of other privileges. The full list of regulations can be found on the CSI OrgSync page. However, CSI does not regulate what is posted on the bulletin boards next to administrative offices in the A and B wings, where many of the Lit Club posters were hung. Those spaces are designated for the usage of the professor or administrator that occupies the adjacent office. In the Fishbowl there is also a specific column where individuals and companies from outside the college can advertise. CSI approves these advertisements, but they are not subject to the posting policy rules.
"The purpose of the policy is to establish a system for efficiently disseminating information, maintaining the aesthetic appearance of the College environment and ensuring that all postings are in accordance with the New Jersey State Fire Code," said Davey.
A feature that some colleges have adopted is “free speech zones.” Free speech zones are places where students can post freely, as long as the content is protected under the First Amendment. So, for example, things like obscenities, defamation, true threats and blackmail would be prohibited in free speech zones, according to the First Amendment Center. However, such zones have been subject to criticism. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education attests that every part of campus should be a free speech zone, not just very specific portions. Ramapo does not currently have an unregulated posting zone for students.
The Lit Club said they are attempting to end what they perceive as a lack of free speech by amplifying student opinion. According to Hirschhorn, the posters were not just an advertisement to get students to join the club, but rather a catalyst for a more vocal student body.
“I wouldn’t want to claim any political opinion for the lit club, other than that it is a place where any opinion can be expressed,” said Hirschhorn. “That doesn’t necessarily mean just our meetings, it means our events and it’s really want we what to bring to campus. So, we were trying to move the blank page – it doesn’t just have to be in a room where nobody can listen in, where free speech is important.”