Examiner Local Editorial: Muzzling free speech on campus

January 2, 2013

One New Year’s resolution we’d like to see in 2013 is a renewed effort to uphold the First Amendment on college campuses. According to a new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, 62 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities "maintain severely restrictive speech codes … that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech."

FIRE noted that the overwhelming majority of speech is protected. But narrow exceptions (such as "fighting words," obscenity and defamation) "are often misused and abused by universities to punish constitutionally protected speech."

Restrictions intended to protect students from harassment or bullying have been used instead to harass and bully students who speak their minds, FIRE reports, calling the suppression of First Amendment rights on campus "a national scandal."

"Red light" institutions, where campus speech codes are in apparent violation of First Amendment protections, include Georgetown and Howard universities in the District, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond in Virginia, and Frostburg State and Johns Hopkins universities in Maryland.

Although skittish administrators struggle to find a middle ground between free speech and the sensibilities of students, faculty and staff, they tend to err on the side of repressing speech. For example, after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island was questioned by campus police after he sent out a tweet calling for National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s "head on a stick." Only after FIRE reminded university President David Dooley that the statement was not a real threat did he issue a statement acknowledging that "however intemperate and inflammatory" the professor’s comments may be, they "are protected by the First Amendment."

The good news is that there’s a handful of "green light" schools where free speech is really free, including James Madison University, the College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia, the institution founded by Thomas Jefferson, who would roll over in his grave if he knew how many academics are undermining their primary mission by trying to restrict the free flow of ideas.

And as Atlantic columnist Wendy Kaminer, a member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors, noted, "One of the ironies of this drive for civility … [is that] you end up encouraging incivility, because people don’t know how to argue." So upholding free-speech rights on campus has an important added benefit. It promotes civil, respectful dialogue in an increasingly diverse public square.

Schools: Johns Hopkins University Howard University Virginia Commonwealth University University of Virginia University of Richmond James Madison University Frostburg State University Georgetown University The College of William and Mary University of Rhode Island