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The Stifling Nature of Bureaucracy and "Free Speech Zones"

Stifling Activism on Campus

by LAURA FINLEY

I am writing and raging. Raging because I am tired, oh so tired, of my activism being repressed or limited by bureaucratic minutia and ridiculous protocol.  I am even more upset at the ways bureaucracy stifles my students who, because they are informed and outraged, want to act and are told they can’t, or can only under certain conditions…blah, blah, blah.

I am coming to realize that this squelching of real activism happens on so many fronts, even those we typically associate with freedom to assembly and expression. As a college professor, I have witnessed the difficulty of enacting a true mission for social justice because, any time we get “too controversial,” we might alienate a donor, future donor, or other bureaucratic big-wig. Thus final approval for activism, it seems, must come from, of all places, a division devoted to making money for the institution, not one devoted to its mission or to the empowerment of students as leaders.

It is even worse for students. Increasingly, students are told they can only organize if they get institutional approval. And they must speak out only in designated “free speech zones”—wasn’t the United States founded as a free speech zone?  How oxymoronic, emphasis on the latter half of the word.  Those who have power can lord over those without, curtailing their efforts to envision and begin creating a better world.

It is not just academe where this is a problem, however. I have written before about the bureaucracy of social services and the ways that these entities sometimes harm, rather than help. It is even evident among progressive peace and justice organizations, although I would argue it looks different. It may be disguised as offering a “voice” to all, but when some exercise veto power, or at least attempt to do so via bureaucratic strangling, the result is the same.

For instance, I have seen this squelching of ambition and activism via an electronic handcuff known as track changes. Instead of applauding persons who author critical commentary on social issues, an important form of activism, I would argue, I have seen members of peace and justice organizations attempt to curtail or rein it in by softening the word choice and track-changing the ever-loving-hell out of a document. So, instead of being justice-oriented yet provocative, this activism ends up mundane and, in all likelihood, boring and unread.

What do I recommend? We let people be and we let them put their messages out there. Others who may disagree can do so. Dialogue will ensue—a good thing. We stop using our academic privilege to present as though our style of delivery is better than others. And, we encourage students, academics, and activists to prevail through the bureaucracy until they are heard.

I know I will, rant aside.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology. Her column is syndicated by Peace Voice.