2012: a tough year for free speech on campus

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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There’s no place in the world where speech is freer than the United States of America. It’s a vital part of the attraction our land has always had for those around the world who find themselves marginalized, persecuted, or worse because of what they say or what they believe. Unfortunately, our college campuses are an exception to our exceptional freedom — and for those of us who care about freedom in academia, 2012 was another tough year.

First, some good news: the latest numbers, just released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), show that when it comes to college and university policies that blatantly contradict the principles of free speech and the First Amendment, things are actually improving, if slowly. FIRE’s latest annual survey showed that over three-fifths of the more than 400 schools reviewed restrict student speech that, off campus, is clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Casual observers may be surprised to find that 62% of public schools continue to maintain speech codes that are flat-out unconstitutional. It’s disappointing to see that so many of our public institutions — your tax dollars at work! — pay no more attention to the First Amendment than Snoop Dogg does to marijuana laws, but this is actually an improvement from previous years. Five years ago, 79% of public colleges were blatant scofflaws.

Of course, that’s just going by the schools’ written policies. When it comes to free speech, perhaps our nation’s colleges are better in practice? Sorry, nope. In fact, if anything, their violations of free speech are far more ridiculous than one would assume from their policies. Let’s look at a few of the year’s lowlights:

In January, Syracuse University finally reversed the expulsion of education student Matt Werenczak. While working at an inner city school in Syracuse, Werenczak and another white student teacher heard a black community leader say that he thought that the city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges. When Werenczak grumbled about this on Facebook, he was summarily kicked out of school and was required to seek anger-management counseling, complete diversity training, and write a paper demonstrating growth “regarding cultural diversity” if he wished to have even a chance to return. FIRE exposed this scandal on January 18, and only hours later, Werenczak was readmitted.

The next month, it was the University of Cincinnati’s turn to be embarrassed when it faced a speech code lawsuit over its treatment of a group of students who wished to collect signatures in support of a right-to-work ballot initiative. Cincinnati’s “free speech area” regulations restricted all “demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to a mere 0.1% of the campus and required advanced notice to the university of 10 working days for any such events. FIRE had first warned Cincinnati that its policy was unconstitutional in 2007, but the university managed to ignore or deny this until it finally lost the lawsuit over its speech code (along with tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and, of course, the ability to restrict its students’ speech) in August.

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).