Liberty on Campus in 2009: FIRE’s Tenth Anniversary Year in Review

December 31, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, December 31, 2009America’s college and university campuses continued to rank among the worst places in America for free speech and other First Amendment rights in 2009. Yet thanks to the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American people’s continued belief in our nation’s founding principles, freedom on campus made real advances this year, led by a drop in the percentage of public campuses that unconstitutionally restrict the right to freedom of expression.

"Campus speech codes and censorship are as unpopular as ever in the courts and among Americans at large," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "In 2009, we saw signs that college administrators are beginning to notice that they are out of step with the law and the American tradition of liberty. But a huge amount of work for FIRE remains before we can consider our campuses safe for students’ and faculty members’ fundamental rights."

FIRE won many victories for freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience in 2009, its tenth anniversary year. Among these successes:

  • The University of Minnesota retreated from plans to impose ideological litmus tests on education students that would subject students with the "wrong" views to remedial re-education, weeding out, or denial of admission altogether. After FIRE protested and a national uproar ensued, the university promised that it would never "mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with ‘wrong beliefs.’"
  • Stanford University finally graduated student-blogger Michele Kerr with a master’s degree in education after the school tried to revoke her admission for voicing disagreement with the "progressive" views held by Stanford administrators, demanded the password to her private blog, and attempted to expel her for her opinions and teaching philosophy. After FIRE became involved, more senior administrators intervened and guaranteed Kerr fair treatment. The case attracted in-depth coverage from The Washington Post‘s Jay Mathews.
  • Pittsburgh’s largest community college finally allowed student Christine Brashier to pass out handbills promoting a pro-gun group on its campus after FIRE drew the attention of the national media to the case and found the student an attorney through FIRE’s Legal Network. Under pressure, the college agreed to guarantee all students the ability to freely form expressive organizations on campus.
  • The University of California at Berkeley, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Arizona all revoked excessive security fees they had levied against student groups who hosted controversial speakers after FIRE informed them of the unconstitutional nature of the "heckler’s veto" their decisions had endorsed.
  • Wright State University restored recognition to the Campus Bible Fellowship, a 30-year old organization on its campus, following a sudden withdrawal of recognition in January after the group refused to eliminate faith-based standards for its voting members.

2009 also saw the percentage of unconstitutional speech codes on public campuses drop for the second year in a row. FIRE’s report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2010, found that 71% of public schools surveyed maintained unconstitutional "red-light" speech codes, compared to 77% the previous year and 79% two years ago. The College of William & Mary highlighted this trend, eliminating its speech codes completely thanks to student activism from a former FIRE intern. Unfortunately, private campuses became more restrictive, with the percentage of red-light codes increasing from 67% to 70%.

In total, FIRE won 29 public victories for students and faculty members at 26 colleges and universities with a total enrollment of nearly 700,000 students and was responsible for changing 13 unconstitutional or repressive policies affecting more than 250,000 students in 2009. FIRE’s victories from 2009 and the previous nine years can be viewed on our interactive victory map.

FIRE’s work was featured in 179 news articles in 91 publications with a combined print and online circulation of more than 107 million, and FIRE reached millions more through its advertisements on Facebook.com and in print publications such as college newspapers and the college rankings issue of U.S. News & World Report. FIRE also raised its profile through a 10th Anniversary Celebration in New York City that featured speeches by noted civil libertarian Nat Hentoff and law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh. A list of many more of FIRE’s accomplishments for 2009 is available on FIRE’s website.

In 2010, FIRE will begin one of its largest legal efforts yet, kicking off the year by filing two federal court amicus briefs in January alone, including one with the U.S. Supreme Court. FIRE will also concentrate on making the state of the law known to even more college administrators by expanding the Speech Code Litigation Project and building on efforts like its recently released handbook for administrators, Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies. FIRE also expects to see more cases dealing with student and faculty expression online in forums like Facebook.com. And because so much student expression is moving online, FIRE is also planning to hire a 2010 Video Fellow to produce high-quality online videos designed to effectively inform students about their rights and the public about the almost unbelievable abuses that regularly take place on campus.

"FIRE is looking forward to building on 2009’s momentum in 2010," said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s Vice President. "With the help of the public, we can make further progress against the abuses of campus political correctness and authoritarianism and make 2010 the freest year in a generation for America’s college students and faculty members."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Robert L. Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org