2012: a tough year for free speech on campus

This good news in August was rapidly swept away in September by the outcry over the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video that was, for a time, blamed for the violence that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. It’s now widely accepted that the killings were actually the result of a planned terrorist attack and not simply a horrific form of YouTube commenting; at the time, however, a number of American academics took the view that it was America’s laissez-faire attitude toward free speech that was at fault. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that if only the law could require or incentivize people to be more sensitive to the feelings of irrational and violent people on the other side of the world, the attack would never have happened. FIRE did its part in pushing back against such sentiment, but let’s have no illusions — those who believe that “offensive” speech must be limited for the common good are not likely to be easily persuaded unless and until it’s their freedom of speech that is threatened.

In November, it was SUNY Oswego’s turn to demonstrate how far overboard administrators can go in silencing even mild criticism. Journalism student Alexander Myers was punished because, while writing a profile of college hockey coach Ed Gosek for a class assignment, he had the audacity to say in an email that “what you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.” SUNY Oswego wrongly declared that Myers’ emails could constitute unprotected defamation, harassment, intimidation, or threats. That’s completely bogus, but it gets worse: Oswego placed Myers on interim suspension pending a hearing, and initially banned him from campus and ordered him to vacate his dorm — all for a harmless email message. (After FIRE intervened, these shockingly unconstitutional charges were dropped.)

Is there nothing that can be done? Have we lost academia? Thankfully, the answer is no, as First Amendment advocates have an ace in the hole for which the censors never seem to fully account: Americans still, by and large, believe in free speech, despite the efforts of our colleges to convince them that they’re wrong to do so. With your help, FIRE and others will keep the flame of freedom alive in the hearts of America’s youth and ensure that 2013 is a better year for freedom of speech than 2012.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).