Back to School: What Can University Administrators Do to Uphold Rights on Campus?

By on August 31, 2011

This week, FIRE has been gearing up for the start of the new school year at colleges and universities across the country. Another academic year means another opportunity to defend and improve the rights enjoyed by students and faculty and we are excited at the prospect.

Jaclyn has already laid out the tools that FIRE makes available to students so that they can fight back against rights abuses and work proactively to improve the climate for free speech on their campuses. Will has issued a call for attorneys interested in joining FIRE’s Legal Network. And be sure to check out our "Free Speech Toolbox," filled with useful resources for students, faculty, parents and grandparents, concerned citizens, and attorneys.

So what about those who run our nation’s institutions of higher education—what can they do to uphold and improve student and faculty rights at their schools?

A good starting point for administrators is to check out FIRE’s handbook tailored specifically for university administrators and policymakers, Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies. Authored by Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research, and Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, our handbook is a comprehensive yet accessible resource for identifying and remedying the most prevalent problems in university policies regulating student and faculty speech. It analyzes frequent errors in policies governing harassment, civility, bias reporting, computer and network use, free speech zones, and campus postings, and is available in both HTML and as a PDF for free download. Aided by our handbook, administrators can gain the knowledge needed to revise their institution’s speech policies and bring them into compliance with the First Amendment or, in the case of a private university, with their school’s expressed commitments to freedom of expression.

Along with FIRE’s analysis of the most frequent problems in campus speech codes, administrators should also avail themselves of our Spotlight database. Through Spotlight, not only can administrators find out what their institution’s overall speech code rating is, they can learn which policy or policies in particular earn a "red light" by clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, and which ones earn a "yellow light" because they potentially ban or excessively regulate protected speech. This policy-by-policy breakdown can prove invaluable in a university’s efforts to improve its speech code rating to a "green light."

Given that only 14 institutions from around the country currently enjoy a green-light rating, administrators able to bring their school into this group would do a great service to its name and reputation. Within the past year, for example, both the University of Virginia and Arizona State University removed each of their remaining speech codes, and FIRE happily praised the two universities. We hope to add more institutions to the green-light club this year with the help of some friendly administrators!

What if your college or university is not listed in Spotlight? Administrators at these schools can learn more about the policies maintained by their institution simply by contacting us, and one of FIRE’s attorneys on staff—whether Samantha, Will, or myself—would be happy to answer queries about their institution’s policies on campus speech. We’re all specialists in First Amendment law, and we’re more than happy to help you assess your school’s policies.

Our willingness to work together with administrators is seen in the responses to our national mailing from December 2010. In December, we sent a certified mailing to public colleges and universities across the nation, informing their presidents and top lawyers that in the wake of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s 2010 decision in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, the state of the law on campus speech codes is clearer than ever before, and that they and their staff should be ready to pay out of their own pockets if they continue to violate their students’ free speech rights. In response to our mailing, we received letters and other forms of inquiry from 20 different colleges and universities, and we have worked in the months since to provide our analysis of each school’s speech codes as well as our input as to how administrators at these schools can revise the policies to bring them into compliance with the First Amendment. The policy changes resulting from these exchanges is rewarding, and we look forward to continuing that work into the new school year. (We will also be blogging about some of these exchanges in this space soon.)

So as you can see, there is quite a bit university administrators can do to improve the climate for free speech and individual rights on their campuses, and we hope that more administrators will avail themselves of the resources FIRE makes available in their efforts to do so. We stand ready to help.