FIRE Answers an Old Critic – Again

By December 7, 2007

Grover Furr is at it again. Responding in the comments section to the Chronicle for Higher Education’s blog entry on this week’s release of FIRE’s annual speech codes report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2007: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, Furr calls the report a “fraud,” claiming that we seek only to advance a political agenda and that our analysis of speech codes is incorrect.

The thing is, we’ve answered Furr before – in 2005, when he was making nearly identical claims. Since he didn’t get the message then – and we suspect a finely-honed proclivity to ignore viewpoints differing from his own – we’re forced to respond again:

Grover Furr baselessly attacking FIRE?

Here we go again.

First, FIRE is a non-partisan non-profit organization. To be clear: our defense of speech on campus is absolutely and unequivocally viewpoint-neutral. In the past few months alone, we have defended speech from all points on the political spectrum: from Rocky Mountain Collegian editor J. David McSwane at Colorado State University, who faced formal disciplinary charges after publishing an anti-Bush editorial (“Taser this… FUCK BUSH”), to Hamline University student Troy Scheffler, expelled for advocating concealed-carry rights for students; from Valdosta State University student T. Hayden Barnes, expelled for peacefully protesting the construction of a $30 million dollar parking garage on campus, to Indiana University–South Bend student journalist Robert Francis, punished for his review of a student production of The Vagina Monologues. Even the most cursory examination of our case archive – available online – demonstrates FIRE’s commitment to defending the individual rights of all students and faculty, from Ward Churchill to the San Francisco State University College Republicans.

Second, as we’ve publicly (and patiently, given his seeming propensity for willful ignorance) explained to Mr. Furr at length in the past, FIRE defines a speech code in the most straightforward way possible: i.e., as “any campus regulation that punishes, forbids, heavily regulates, or restricts a substantial amount of protected speech.” The complete success of our Speech Codes Litigation Project – alluded to by Mr. Hoover in the article above – proves that our analysis of the constitutionality of speech codes is jurisprudentially sound.

Accordingly, FIRE assigns Montclair State University (MSU) a “red light” – meaning that the school’s policies both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech – because several MSU policies facially restrict the rights of students to engage in speech protected by the First Amendment. For ready example, MSU’s “University Code of Conduct” states: “A student will be found responsible for harassment if he or she engages in intimidating verbal, written or physical behavior that is directed at an individual and… c) creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment for such pursuits, employment or participation.” This policy, while arguably well-intentioned, is both unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Vague, because students are left to guess at what types of speech will be considered by the relevant authority figure to be “demeaning” or “intimidating,” creating an impermissible “chilling effect” on student speech; and overbroad, because the First Amendment protects vast swaths of speech that could be subjectively considered to be “demeaning.” Indeed, several sections of MSU’s code are strikingly similar to the San Francisco State University code recently struck down by a federal district court on First Amendment grounds.

Drawing analogies between public universities – which the Supreme Court has identified as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” stating that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools [of higher learning],” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) –  and “a city hall” or a “police station,” as Mr. Furr does here, is patently flawed and deeply problematic for obvious reasons. Public universities have both a legal and moral obligation to embrace free expression on campus – not only for purposes of  compliance with the First Amendment, but also to ensure that students gain the exposure to the vast world of thought that a modern liberal education requires. Mr. Furr should be embarrassed: To equate a university with a police station for purposes of free expression betrays an exceedingly meager conception of what education should be.

With regard to private colleges, FIRE respects the right of private institutions to determine for themselves what values are held paramount, consistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of assembly. However, we believe that when private universities make extensive promises of freedom of expression to their students and faculty in promotional materials, regulations, and student and faculty handbooks, they must then be held accountable for breaking those promises, even when their maintenance proves to be less than convenient. To do otherwise is to grant private schools the right to engage in a pernicious bait-and-switch to the profound detriment of both students and faculty.

In publishing our second annual report on speech codes, FIRE advances no agenda other than our interest in cataloguing and publicizing the myriad ways in which our nation’s public and private institutions fail to fully protect freedom of expression on campus. We encourage all interested to examine the report, its methodology, and our case archive at our website, www.thefire.org.

Like Greg wrote last time:

I don’t really know why you would make such obviously false allegations against two articles arguing for free speech on campus.  I have looked at your own articles.  You seem determined that Stalin, the mass-murdering overachiever of the 20th century is somehow underappreciated and that the United States most likely ordered the assassination of Pope John Paul II back in 1981 because he was too liberal, as well as numerous other claims many would consider outrageous, offensive, and absurd.  You, like FIRE, should be arguing for a conception of free speech and academic freedom that is as strong as possible, as you benefit from a strong conception of academic freedom and free speech every day.

To be clear, everyone at FIRE believes in your right to speak your mind.  I noticed that some of your more controversial opinions have gotten the notice of the media, including Front Page Magazine.  The author of that piece has just as much right to criticize you as you have to criticize him.  However, if you find that you are being officially punished for your opinions, don’t hesitate to contact FIRE.

Hopefully, this time Furr will get the message. However, we’re not holding our breath.