Recently at Hampton University
, seven students were punished for distributing anti-Bush flyers without the approval of the university administration. As discussed in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus
, private universities generally have broad discretion when establishing policies that restrict speech on campus. But this power is not always unchecked.
State constitutions usually take a back seat when we discuss civil liberties, but some state courts have interpreted their constitutions to guarantee more freedom than the U.S. Constitution. Hampton administrators should read Article I, Section 12, of the Constitution of Virginia
, which states in part:
That the freedoms of speech and of the press are among the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by despotic governments; that any citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects….
Hampton officials would be wise to heed this extraordinarily strong language. Although the Virginia courts have not, at present, applied this right to students at private universities, Hampton may still find someday that it must legally provide its students with some free speech rights. Both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey courts have applied freedom of speech guarantees in their state constitutions to private colleges and universities, and California has guaranteed freedom of speech on private campuses through the famous Leonard Law.
Even though Hampton may not have a legal obligation to provide its students with freedom of speech, it still should keep in mind that universities benefit enormously from the free and open exchange of ideas. Freedom of speech is more than just a constitutional clause—it is a fundamental component of human liberty upon which this country was founded.
Free speech and the marketplace of ideas are basic tenets on which higher education was founded. Although private universities have the right to ignore this and suppress speech in the name of some other purpose, universities that claim to honor free speech should be bastions of free and unfettered debate and discussion—not the home of despotic administrators who arbitrarily punish unpopular speech. Hampton University should be no exception.