A New Year for Student Rights

January 9, 2014

by Joseph Cohn at Real Clear Policy

We would like to think of American universities as the first place where young adults come into their full freedom — rationally run institutions where students challenge themselves intellectually and broaden their horizons. Unfortunately, too many campuses fail to measure up to these ideals.

Over the past year, my organization — the nonpartisan, nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — has worked hard to defend student rights like free speech, due process, and religious liberty on campuses across the country. The threats to student rights came from all directions: overzealous campus administrators, students seeking to silence peers’ unpopular viewpoints, and even the federal government.

For example, security personnel and administrators at Modesto Junior College, a public school, stopped student Robert Van Tuinen from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day because he had not obtained permission to use the college’s tiny “free-speech zone.” With help from FIRE, Van Tuinen sued. Now, the “free-speech zone” policy is on hold and the case appears headed to settlement — but far too many campuses are still unconstitutionally restricting expressive activities to tiny zones on campus.

Students weren’t the only ones censored on campus last year. University of Kansas professor David Guth was placed on administrative leave for tweeting from his personal account, in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” In December, things took a turn for the worse when the Kansas Board of Regents empowered the state’s public colleges to fire professors for social-media posts that “impair[] discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers” or are “contrary to the best interest of the university.”

Students played the role of censor, too. This was the case at Brown University, where students prevented New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly — the man responsible for implementing the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy — from speaking on campus by drowning out his speech with protest and heckles. In the chilling words of one of the student organizers, “[The university] decided not to cancel the lecture, so we decided to cancel it for them.”

Perhaps the most troubling example of censorship, though, came at the hands of the federal government. Following a year-long investigation into mishandled sexual-assault complaints, the Departments of Justice and Education entered into a settlement agreement with the University of Montana — an agreement presented as a “blueprint” for colleges and universities throughout the country that receive public funding (i.e., virtually all of them, public and private). The settlement redefined sexual harassment in a manner that significantly infringes on free speech and permits universities to take disciplinary measures against accused students before hearings or even investigations are completed. (In a welcome development, the federal government has begun to rethink some of the more troubling aspects of its “blueprint,” due largely to the significant pressure placed upon it from a broad coalition of organizationsscholarscivil libertariansjournalists, and even Senator John McCain.)

But before anyone gets depressed by these examples, there are at least two legislative developments worth celebrating from 2013. Early in the year, Congress rejected an attempt to require most colleges and universities to use the low “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof in campus sexual-misconduct hearings. And during the summer, North Carolina became the first state in the country to enact legislation requiring public colleges and universities to allow students accused of non-academic misconduct to hire lawyers to represent them in disciplinary hearings. The law passed in the state’s house of representatives 112-1.

As legislatures reconvene in this new year, lawmakers will have more opportunities to tackle threats to campus rights. Congress, for example, will begin the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which expired at the close of 2013. Hopefully, the new bill will include provisions to put an end to the type of rights abuses that are too common on our campuses.

Joseph Cohn is the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Schools: Modesto Junior College Brown University University of Kansas Cases: University of Kansas: Anti-NRA Tweet Results in Professor’s Suspension Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day