Column in ‘La Jolla Light’ Highlights Findings of FIRE’s ‘Spotlight’ Report and Issues of College Censorship

By January 31, 2011

Writing for the La Jolla (Calif.) Light, Marsha Sutton details the many noteworthy findings contained in FIRE’s latest annual speech code report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, and discusses the various issues of campus censorship that college students and faculty face today. Sutton’s column does a thorough job of analyzing the import of our Spotlight report’s findings, and it paints an accurate picture of the current status of free speech in academianamely that while there has been some improvement in the percentage of colleges and universities that restrict free speech in their policies, the vast majority of schools out there still have legally indefensible speech codes on the books, and students and faculty still have reason to worry about facing punishment for engaging in the "wrong" kind of expression.

Starting with the Spotlight report, Sutton recites our data showing that the vast majority of schools surveyed nationally earned either a red light or a yellow light for their speech codes. She then gets to the sobering conclusion to be drawn from this:

That means that about 260 colleges out of the combined total of 390 were found to be far too restrictive of free speech, while only 12 of the 390 were deemed acceptable.

Turning locally, she notes that California’s schools fit the national pattern:

Locally, the following colleges have been given the red-light designation: Cal State San Marcos, Cal State Long Beach, California Institute of Technology, Claremont McKenna, San Diego State, Stanford, and UC San Diego, Riverside, Davis, Irvine and Santa Cruz. Nearly all the Ivy League schools and most of the other top-tier private universities nationally received a red-light rating. UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara received yellow-light ratings.

I’m glad to see another local writer highlighting the free speech shortcomings of California’s colleges and universities. Hopefully, such coverage will place some needed pressure on these institutions to shape up.

Sutton’s column next lays out the few exceptions to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech (making the always useful point that the vast majority of expression is entitled to constitutional protection), and discusses one of the major trends contributing to the prevalence of speech codes:

Most speech is protected except for specific types of speech that the Supreme Court has ruled an exception under the First Amendment: "speech that incites reasonable people to immediate violence, so-called ‘fighting words’ (face-to-face confrontations that lead to physical altercations), harassment, true threats and intimidation, obscenity, and libel."

One of the more troublesome restraints are the so-called "free-speech zones" – areas on campus, often in remote locations, that are designated for rallies or demonstrations and often require prior permits or advance approval from the university. "Such ‘prior restraints’ are generally inconsistent with the First Amendment," according to FIRE.

Indeed they are. One need look no further than California’s own Southwestern College to see the problems presented by free speech zones (or in that case, a "free speech patio").

Sutton’s column finally comes to a strong conclusion with these words, which I hope are heeded by universities both within California and nationwide:

Because it can lead to all sorts of repressive ends, censorship is not the American way. Colleges in particular should be safe havens for the airing of new ways of thinking and creative expressions of ideas.

[...]

As technological advancements and societal incivility encourage both exceptional and depraved self-expression, we can expect more and more First Amendment challenges in court. Let us hope our judges have the wisdom and the intelligence to preserve America’s basic liberties without trespassing on individual rights. It’s a balancing act of enormous significance.

Thanks to Marsha Sutton and the La Jolla Light for this coverage of our speech code report and the national problem of censorship on college campuses.