College Campus Censorship Comes for the Faculty Unions

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This year’s membership drive for the faculty union at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) hit a stumbling block late last month, as the school’s administration shuttered an on-campus informational table set up by the organization, and two state-level union representatives were taken away in handcuffs.

The HACC Education Association, which was formed in April 2022 and represents roughly 900 faculty members, kicked off its recruitment campaign with an event at the school’s York, Pennsylvania campus on August 22.

It went on without incident. Accompanied by two representatives from the union’s state affiliate, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), members of the local HACC Education Association set up promotional display tables and handed out union merchandise. Over 100 faculty members attended the hybrid virtual and in-person event, HACC Education Association’s president, Kathy Sicher told The Daily Beast.

But a hiccup arose as the union planned to continue its campaign with an informational table at the college’s campus in Lancaster the following week.

As with the York event, Sicher told The Daily Beast, the union went “through the proper channels that [HACC] had told us to go through to reserve the table and the space.” But after days without a reply, she learned that HACC had informed a PSEA representative that the request for tables was denied.

Indeed, on August 28, according to a statement provided by HACC to The Daily Beast, the college told the PSEA that it was deemed an “external entit[y],” barred from promoting “their special interests on any HACC campus” as per school policy. (While HACC says that the PSEA requested tables at HACC Lancaster, Sicher told The Daily Beast that it was actually she who had done so, acting as the local union’s president “and a full-time tenured professor” at HACC.)

Citing the First Amendment and state law enshrining public employees’ right to bargain collectively, Sicher says the union decided to move forward with the table nonetheless.

On August 30, a few HACC faculty union members—joined by the same PSEA representatives present at the York event eight days prior—set up a display in a building on the Lancaster campus. The faculty members running the table “were in the lobby of the main building in Lancaster, which is a public space, off to the side,” Sicher told The Daily Beast. “It was peaceful, non-confrontational, non-disruptive of the academic setting.”

But, as shown in a video published by CBS 21 News, soon after the local union members set up campus security told them to leave.

“Those who wish to defend and promote free expression on campus… ought to keep a keen eye on higher education labor efforts… they represent potential targets for administrative censorship…”

The local police were called to the scene and, after being told to disperse from the table or be “in the same situation as” the PSEA representatives, the HACC faculty members complied and left. The PSEA staff members, however, were arrested for trespassing after citing their “right to be here to reach out to our members” and refusing to leave.

HACC’s statement held that “[t]hese types of incidents are unfortunate and do not reflect HACC’s core values.” In an email to The Daily Beast, PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal wrote that the state affiliate “has a right and a duty to communicate with members in the bargaining unit. Union activity is protected under state labor law.”

“The faculty—the local, legally recognized union—was organizing membership tables, and our state reps are welcome to be there if they want to be there,” Sicher said. “It was [the local’s] marketing drive,” she emphasized, “but it doesn’t matter. We’re part of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the PSEA. We’re part of the NEA, the National Education Association.”

As for the difference between HACC’s reaction to the event at York, which went on smoothly, and the union display at Lancaster, she suggested that the support garnered for the union at the former event could have displeased HACC management.

In its statement, HACC charged that the August 30 incident represented a “deplorable and disgraceful” “publicity stunt” on the part of the faculty union, which had been “orchestrated so that [the representatives] would be arrested.” The college lamented that “some students were traumatized by seeing armed law enforcement officers making arrests on their campus.”

Such a narrative, however, would only be sound if HACC’s hands had truly been tied at the time. But other, more favorable courses of action than shutting down the table were doubtlessly available.

As Sicher told The Daily Beast of the August 30 incident, “I would have thought HACC’s management would have said, you know, ‘We need to work this out. We need to come up with a plan on how you’re going to do this’…. But there was no conversation like that.”

As another alternative, HACC could have deferred to the principle of open debate by acknowledging the right of its faculty members and union representatives to share information in a public forum.

Sicher noted that this right cuts the other way, too, saying, “Somebody could have stood right next to our union table and said ‘I don’t like unions,’ and they have the freedom to say that.” Instead, HACC resorted to suppression.

The incident is not a bolt out of the blue. Too often, when confronted with faculty expression that challenges power relations within universities—particularly amid the upsurge in higher education labor organizing over the past two years—college administrations have taken censorial stances.

In April, for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that, in response to graduate student workers’ unionization efforts at Stanford, the private university distributed faculty guidelines against professors posting “opinions about union organizing on your office door, in your faculty office or on social media.” After a well-deserved backlash, the university promptly adjusted the guidelines, walking back the restriction on sharing opinions about unionizing on social media—but not those regarding offices and office doors.

This summer at the University of California-San Diego, protests by academic workers—accusing the university of foot-dragging over implementing a 2022 union contract—were met by the administration with a heavy hand. In July, three protestors who allegedly wrote phrases like “Living Wage Now” in chalk and washable markers on a university building faced felony vandalism charges. “These workers were charged with felonies for exercising their right to protest,” Rafael Jaime, the president of the UC Student-Workers Union wrote for the progressive magazine, In These Times.

As higher education organizing continues, managerial attempts to clamp down on dissent about labor activities on campus deserve continued vigilance from free speech watchdogs.

It’s also worth briefly spelling out how the academic labor movement could improve the state of freedom of expression on campus.

After all, as public conversations about campus speech too often overlook, adjunctification and precarious employment relationships play crucial roles in limiting professors’ expressive freedom. In a recent report by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), untenured professors accounted for almost three-quarters of documented retaliatory firings of faculty for their speech. FIRE also notes that untenured professors report being more fearful than their tenured colleagues of termination for expressing their opinions.

Pointing to a straightforward remedy to this stifling reality in a May Twitter post, campus speech expert Jeffery Sachs observed that faculty unionization offers a “solution to the general phenomenon” of self-censorship among academic workers, particularly off the tenure track.

Those who wish to defend and promote free expression on campus, then, ought to keep a keen eye on higher education labor efforts, not only because they represent potential targets for administrative censorship—as demonstrated by the recent incident at HACC—but also considering their potential to improve academic job security and, by the same token, the state of open debate in academia.

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