Today’s FIRE press release celebrates a victory for free speech and expression at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), where students were threatened with punishment if they held an affirmative action bake sale protest. If you’re not familiar with these protests, we explain them in our press release, so take a look there. Unfortunately, the victory at NEIU is matched with a blow to free speech at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, where students under pressure from the administration buckled and apologized for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Most of those who read FIRE’s blog and follow our work are people who are very committed to free speech, so for some of us it’s hard to understand why a student group—even one backed by FIRE—could ever just give up fighting when the law and public opinion would be on its side. The answer lies in the vulnerability of students and the oppressive nature of the campus culture at many universities. Students are vulnerable because they feel that one black mark on their transcript or records can screw up their lives—and to a certain extent, they’re right. Would you want to try to get your first job with a note in your record that says you were found guilty of “discrimination”? This is the power that administrators hold over students, and because they exercise it arbitrarily time and time again it’s a serious threat.
As for the oppressive nature of campus culture, students are often faced with mandatory and intrusive diversity training, student judicial bureaucracies where justice is secondary to ego, and administrators with an ideological axe to grind. Add to that the fact that they might be publicly embarrassing the university by going public with the abuses they have suffered, and you can imagine what kind of coercive emotional power that universities can and often do bring to bear on students to shut up and get in line. It is a testament to America’s youth that so many have stood up for our fundamental rights despite all of this pressure. If they were not there to set an example for their fellow students, many more students would graduate from our colleges and universities thinking that individual freedom is to be feared and monitored, not respected and celebrated.