FIRE says College restricts freedom of speech

By April 4, 2008

The non-profit group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ranked the College as “red,” meaning that the organization believes that the College has at least one policy “that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Braum Katz ’10 is heading an effort to revise the College’s current policy.

FIRE was founded by author Alan Charles Kors, who, along with Harvey A. Silverglate, wrote “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.”

FIRE handles cases from students and faculty of U.S. institutions of higher education who feel that their rights have been violated. If the case cannot be solved by FIRE’s office staff, it is referred to its legal network, a group of pro bono attorneys.

Additionally, FIRE reviews institutions and publicizes its results, operating under the notion that “illiberal university policies and practices must be exposed to public criticism and scrutiny so that the public is made aware of the violations of basic rights that occur every day on college campuses,” according to its website. The Individual Rights Education Program is the branch of FIRE created to deal specifically with this task.

The Individual Rights Education Program reviews universities’ policies, media coverage of free speech issues and previous cases on file to determine a rating—green being the best, red the worst and yellow somewhere in between.

FIRE justifies its ranking the College as red by citing both policies and media coverage of controversies dating as far back as 2003, as well as a case in which the College allegedly suppressed an affirmative action bake sale in 2005.

Katz interned for FIRE last summer and has written entries on their website.

Katz is proposing revisions to the College’s current policies, mainly focusing on making them more specific.

SA President Elect and current Vice President Valerie Hopkins said that she thought student and faculty First Amendment rights were being limited.

“I don’t know if I’d say [the administration] is abusing their power, but policies need to be less vague,” Hopkins said. “The administration is the sole arbiter of power, so that can land you in sticky water. Less gray area can’t hurt.”

According to FIRE’s website, one such policy is the College’s stance on tolerance, respect, sensitivity, hate and hate speech. Under this policy, the College defines harassment as “abusive conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to threaten an individual or limit the ability of the individual to work, study, or participate in College activities.”

In order to help expose such policies and advocate for students’ First Amendment rights, the SA opened a Department of Student Rights for the first time in history, headed by Katz. It has also appointed a free speech advocate to speak on behalf of students who come to the department with issues or concerns.

“It’s disappointing that any school, especially a state school, has such a ranking,” Hopkins said. “These [proposed] changes to our code of conduct are great, but I’m sure they’re not the only things that need to be done. What happened with the Sex Workers’ Art Show was unconstitutional and shouldn’t be allowed to happen again in the future.”

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Schools: The College of William and Mary