In a new column in our most recent issue of The FIRE Quarterly
), Virginia Postrel, a member of our Board of Directors, explored FIRE’s efforts to ensure freedom of association for students at both public and private universities.
Like dorm bull sessions, affiliating with campus groups helps young people define their identities and beliefs. When universities committed to freedom and equality establish procedures for recognizing student groups, they need to be even-handed and respectful of groups’ purposes. To take the most common, and absurd, example, they have to let Christian groups be Christian, defined as those groups see fit. A secular university, especially a secular state university, has no place deciding which religious doctrines are legitimate for restricting group membership.
Private schools don’t have to embrace freedom of speech or association—but they must bear the competitive consequences if they don’t. And they have the responsibility to live up to their stated policies. FIRE recently exposed the bait-and-switch at Hampton University
, which refuses to recognize a gay and lesbian student group despite claiming to be an institution that supports “equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of…sexual preference.”
Daphne Patai, a member of our Board of Directors, contributed to our recent edition of The FIRE Quarterly with a column reinforcing the importance of FIRE’s work after a year in which we saw so many attempts to limit student speech on campus.
Where restrictions on speech must, by law, be content-neutral, universities these days have the habit of taking it upon themselves to decide which points of view are to be protected by the First Amendment and which are not. Where the law prohibits harassment only if it is “persistent and pervasive” enough to interfere with an individual’s right to an equal education, universities typically embrace poorly written policies that aim to inhibit jokes, offensive comments, and unpopular opinions—the very sorts of speech the First Amendment is meant to protect.
By now Torch readers are undoubtedly familiar with the numerous cases FIRE has taken on to defend constitutionally protected speech that others have found “offensive” (take a look at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois, San Francisco State University, or Bellevue Community College for recent examples). As Daphne points out, these types of cases illustrate why the First Amendment exists—to protect viewpoints that may be unpopular or insulting—and also why FIRE continues the fight to protect legal speech that others attempt to silence.