Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Commercial Speech on Campuses

Connecticut has become the latest state to limit solicitations by credit card companies and other financial institutions on public university campuses.  (Congress has imposed similar marketing restrictions on credit card companies, which are to take effect in February.)  Places of higher learning are subject to many of the same speech restrictions that apply outside campus gates.  A large campus order speech bureaucracy has developed since the 1970s.  Connecticut's law, which is similar to those in 15 other states, aims to make it more difficult for credit card companies to reach students on campus and limits the manner of solicitation.  The rationale for the limits appears to be that students are particularly susceptible to making bad credit decisions as a result of clever marketing ploys such as free giveaways.  According to one supporter of the new limits:  "You should not get a credit card because you were attracted by a free gift as you were walking across the student campus mall. Taking on credit debt is a major decision, not something you should do on the spur of the moment because you want a soda.”

Common-sense limits on credit card marketing on campuses make some sense.  But if one reads between the lines of these laws and the administrative policies on many campuses, the intent seems to be to ban certain types of commercial advertising on campus. 

Although Connecticut’s new law sets limits on soliciting on campus, universities can still go a step further by prohibiting banks and other lenders from marketing on campus altogether.

“A bank can’t come to you and say, ‘I’ve met these regulations and you must let me on campus,’” Michael Meotti, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Higher Education, told his department’s board of governors.

The University of Connecticut, for instance, enacted its own rules for credit-card marketing on campus that restrict the activity to the Student Union and requires marketers to let students accept giveaways without forcing them to participate in the promotion.

Students must also be allowed to “self-select” if they want to approach a marketer’s table without those representatives calling out to the students or using other aggressive techniques, UConn spokesman Michael Kirk said.
Some of these restrictions would likely violate the First Amendment if imposed in other types of public places.  Students ought not to be shielded from credit card pitches on campus.  Perhaps if they learned of the perils of such pitches earlier in life, future generations might become more savvy debt consumers.  In any event, campus administrators should take care not to violate their students' right to receive legal marketing information and to decide for themselves whether to apply for credit.   

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