Harvey Silverglate: Even Uncivil Students Have Their Rights

By October 1, 2013

Today in an article for Forbes, FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate reminds readers that students’ rights to criticize a faculty member may not be abridged simply because the students choose an obnoxious manner of expressing themselves. Silverglate reviews the various factors that must be considered in situations like the current controversy at the City University of New York (CUNY), where students protested the school’s hiring former CIA director David Petraeus as a visiting professor by surrounding and shouting at him as he walked to class. The University Faculty Senate Executive Committee at CUNY has criticized these student protesters, but as Silverglate notes,

The CUNY Faculty Senate Executive Committee has seemingly sought to protect what it views as faculty academic freedom by seeking an arguable restriction of student academic freedom to criticize both a faculty member and the university’s decision to offer him a visiting lectureship.

Not enough facts are yet in to arrive at a considered judgment as to whether the student protests cross the line from a legitimate exercise in student free speech to a protest so loud and disruptive as to genuinely represent a threat to Professor Petraeus’s academic freedom. But from the available snippets of videotape, it is hardly clear that the students stepped over the legal line that courts draw between legitimate protest and unlawful censorial harassment. 

Click over to Forbes to read about a similar case Silverglate worked on in the 1970s and more in-depth analysis of the competing interests at stake at CUNY.