Politics & Policy

Suing for Speech on Campus

FIRE launches a new campaign against universities' suppression of dissent.

Free speech on campus is about to get its day in court.

Last week the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) brought four lawsuits against universities with speech codes they believe are unconstitutionally restrictive. The lawsuits mark the launch of the Stand Up for Free Speech Litigation Project, which aims to end barriers to free speech on campus nationwide.

FIRE has been an advocate for liberty on campus since it was founded 15 years ago. They have brought lawsuits in the past when efforts to persuade university administrations to abandon unconstitutional practices have failed. However, Robert Shibley, the senior vice president of FIRE, said the new initiative is more ambitious in scale.

“Of course we’ll continue working on convincing universities to do the right thing,” Shibley told National Review Online, “but we will also now be bringing litigation in every federal circuit until the message is received that the day of speech code’s over.”

Perhaps the most amusing case is the one at Ohio University. Students Defending Students (SDS), a group which aids students accused of campus misconduct, were told they could not wear shirts bearing that organization’s slogan “We get you off for free,” even though it had been a running joke for decades.

The story behind the suit at Iowa State University is similar. Student members of that school’s chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU) faced a political backlash for producing a T-shirt that used the initials “ISU” and the school’s mascot alongside a marijuana leaf. A new rule, which seemed drafted especially for them, forbade associating using the school’s trademark to promote “dangerous, illegal or unhealthy products, actions or behaviors.”

The suit against Chicago State University is the only Stand Up case that concerns faculty rather than students. Two professors who wrote for a blog critical of that school’s administration were threatened with lawsuits if they did not take down the blog. When the blog remained up, CSU authored a broadly worded policy against “cyberbullying,” which is now being used to silence the inconvenient blog.

Finally, Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, the president of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Citrus College in Glendora, California, petitioned to stop NSA surveillance of private communication. An administrator threatened to remove him from campus for petitioning outside of the school’s tiny “free speech zone.” The date of this incident compounds the travesty – September 17, 2013, is Constitution Day.

Another FIRE case – which has already resulted in a $50,000 settlement – also involved both “free speech zones” and Constitution Day 2013. Robert Van Tuinen, a junior at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, California, videotaped security officials harassing him for attempting to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution outside the designated area and without registering through the allegedly proper channels.

“It’s not free speech if you’re having to ask for permission to do it,” he said.

These cases are not anomalies, according to FIRE’s most recent annual report on campus speech codes. The organization’s most recent “Spotlight on Free Speech” survey of 427 American universities revealed that 250, or 58 percent, of public universities earned a “red light” designation for flagrantly unconstitutional speech policies. In addition 152 schools received a “yellow light” designation for less flagrant violations of free speech.

Only 16 schools, public or private – a mere 3.2 percent of the total – received a favorable “green light” from FIRE. Overly broad anti-sexual harassment measures, “free speech zones,” and selective restrictions on the use university names and logos are among the most common bad policies that garner a negative “red light” rating, Shibley said.

Bad as that sounds, it represents progress. When FIRE first began evaluating schools systematically in 2007, about 79 percent of rated public universities had “red light” designations. Since then, the percent of red light schools has been falling at a fairly consistent rate of 2 to 3 percent a year, which Shibley attributes to the increased press coverage the issue has received.

“So that’s a significant drop,” Shibley said, “but considering that the correct number is zero, it simply isn’t enough.”

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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