College Students Heading Back to School Should Beware of Threats to Liberty on Campus

September 1, 2011

PHILADELPHIA, September 1, 2011—As college students head back to campus this fall, they will be returning to fewer unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes than at any time in the last five years. However, they face new threats to their fundamental freedoms through coercive freshman orientation programs, limits on religious liberty, and new federal regulations that compromise the rights of those accused of some campus crimes. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) stands ready with resources to help those plagued by campus censorship and injustice in the coming year.

"FIRE is slowly winning the battle against censorship by the nearly half-trillion dollar industry that is American higher education," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "However, even as FIRE is making progress against campus censorship, new threats to liberty on campus are rapidly rising to take its place."

According to FIRE’s report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, 67% of the nation’s largest and most prestigious campuses currently have speech codes that violate the First Amendment or their own promises of free speech—a decrease of 4% from last year and down from 75% four years ago. While far too many schools still censor student speech, the decrease in such institutions has been slow but real.

Yet first-year students heading to campus for orientation should be wary, as orientation programs can morph into political indoctrination. For instance, recently at DePauw University in Indiana, students were required to go through a "Tunnel of Oppression" in which supposedly "realistic" demonstrations taught that religious parents hate their gay children, Muslims would find no friends on a predominantly non-Muslim campus, and overweight women suffer from eating disorders. Worse, last year at Hamilton College in New York, male freshmen were required to attend a presentation called "She Fears You" that told them they were personally complicit in a "rape culture" on Hamilton’s campus.

Religious students are likely to see their rights further curtailed in the coming year. In its recent decision in Alpha Delta v. Reed, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals approved a policy at San Diego State University that denied the right of religious students to ask that their voting members or leaders share their religious convictions. This case stemmed from last year’s unwise decision by the Supreme Court in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which opened the door for public universities to enact policies that, while neutral on their face, particularly burden religious students.

Students must also beware of new rules from the federal government that mandate that they be tried using the low "preponderance of the evidence" standard if accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in campus courts. FIRE and the American Association of University Professors have protested this mandate in letters to the government, but have received no response from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the federal agency responsible for the requirement.

Even if students are cleared, the same mandate also opens the door to situations like double or triple jeopardy by allowing accusers to appeal.

Students at six of our nation’s colleges should be aware that their campuses have earned spots on FIRE’s Red Alert list of the worst of the worst schools for liberty on campus. Bucknell University repeatedly used flimsy or patently false excuses to censor a conservative group’s satire of President Obama’s stimulus plan and the group’s "affirmative action bake sale" protest. Brandeis University found a professor of nearly 50 years guilty of racial harassment for using the word "wetbacks" in his Latin American Politics class—in the context of criticizing the term. Colorado College found two students guilty of "violence" simply for posting a flyer that satirized a flyer circulated by another student group.

Johns Hopkins suspended a student for what it deemed an "offensive" Halloween party invitation posted on Facebook, and then passed a repressive "civility" code over the protests of student leaders. Michigan State found a student government leader guilty of "spamming" after she emailed about 8% of the faculty to encourage them to express their views on a proposed shortening of the school calendar. Tufts University found an entire student newspaper guilty of "harassment" for publishing two pieces satirizing affirmative action and Islamic Awareness Week.

None of these schools has remedied these injustices, despite repeated attempts by FIRE to work with them to remove them from the list.

To combat these problems on campus, FIRE offers extensive resources. After looking up their campus in our Spotlight database of speech codes, students and faculty can join our Campus Freedom Network (CFN) for those interested in defending liberty on campus, or read our free series of Guides to Student Rights on Campus. Students can also bring a FIRE speaker to campus or host their own free speech activities. And of course, students who have been denied fundamental freedoms may submit their cases to FIRE at thefire.org.

"Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to defending your liberty on campus," FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said. "Too many colleges and universities promise liberty but deliver repression and double standards. With the help of today’s college students and faculty, FIRE can bring that to an end."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, due process, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org