Free Speech Movement

July 1, 2014

By James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal

FIRE is attempting to light one. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education today filed four lawsuits challenging campus censorship at institutions across the country:

• At Citrus Community College in Glendora, Calif., Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle “was threatened with removal from campus by an administrator for asking a fellow student to sign a petition protesting NSA surveillance of American citizens.” He was accused of expressive activity without a permit and outside the designated “free speech zone,” which according to FIRE’s calculations “comprises just 1.37% of campus.”

• At Iowa State University, two members of the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, had “received university approval for a group T-shirt that featured ISU mascot Cy the Cardinal’s head in place of the ‘O’ in NORML.” But “criticism from members of the public and state officials” led the university not only to rescind approval of the shirt but to ban another “that simply said ‘NORML ISU Supports Legalizing Marijuana.’ “

• At Chicago State University, the plantiffs are faculty members who write for a blog called CSU Faculty Voice, which “is often highly critical of the CSU administration’s perceived corruption and incompetence.” The blog’s logo is a photo of a CSU sign, with “Chicago” crossed out and “Crony” written in, along with the logo “Where we hire our friends.”

• At Ohio university, student Isaac Smith belongs to a group called Students Defending Students, which “provides free assistance to students accused of campus misconduct.” Administrators ordered Smith and his fellow members to stop wearing a shirt promising “We get you off for free,” on the ground that it “objectified women” and “promoted prostitution.”

The four cases are part of a new FIRE effort called the Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project, which also encompasses two earlier cases, one from California’sModesto Junior College and one from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, in which–no joke–administrators tried to prevent students from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. (Although he wasn’t referring to these cases, they bring to mind Ezra Klein‘s infamous observation: “The issue of the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago.”

Campus censorship is a familiar old topic. “Unconstitutional campus speech codes have been a national scandal for decades,” the organization’s press release quotes FIRE chief Greg Lukianoff as saying. “But today, 25 years after the first of the modern generation of speech codes was defeated in court, 58% of public campuses still hold onto shockingly illiberal codes.”

Censorship on campus is usually aimed at more-conservative ideas, but it’s clever of FIRE to choose an ideologically eclectic group of plaintiffs. (Citrus College’s Sinapi-Riddle as a member of Young Americans for Liberty, represents the Ron Paul right.)

Readers may recall that this columnist had our own experience with campus censorship and litigation. That was back before the invention of FIRE, so we were ably represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The case never went to trial because the defendants agreed to settle. The same is true of FIRE’s Modesto and Hilo cases, and FIRE reports that Citrus College agreed a decade ago to abolish the free-speech zone, but reneged.

A favorable settlement is a victory, but a favorable ruling from an appeals court, and especially the Supreme Court, sets a precedent. Even liberal jurists are generally friendly to the sort of free-speech claims FIRE is raising. There’s reason to hope one of the defendants will prove stubborn enough to fight FIRE all the way to court and beyond.

Schools: Citrus College Chicago State University Ohio University Iowa State University Cases: Citrus College – Stand Up For Speech Chicago State University – Stand Up For Speech Iowa State University – Stand Up For Speech Ohio University – Stand Up For Speech