New FIRE Video: What Every Student Should Know Before Starting College

By August 2, 2012

What should every student know before starting college? FIRE’s newest video has the answer: Students should know that they have rights—and colleges must do a better job of protecting those rights. 

We thought it would be useful to explain each statement made in the video for folks who might not be able to believe this kind of censorship happens on our nation’s campuses. Sadly, it does!

"In college, you can get in trouble for what you wear, what you post on Facebook, even for what you say." 

In the past few years, FIRE has fought back against several schools who punished students for their expression-verbal, online, and even sartorial. For example, students on the crew team at Tufts University were punished for a joking T-shirt this year, while Yale University has nixed its student government’s T-shirt design for the annual Harvard-Yale football game two years in a row. Facebook cases are even more common. See what happened to Roman Caple, who was barred from participating in his college graduation for a Facebook post that was critical of his school, Saint Augustine’s College. And just ask Isaac Rosenbloom if you can get in trouble for what you say: He nearly lost his Pell grant funding after a teacher reported him for swearing, once, after class at Hinds Community College.

"Guess you haven’t heard about speech codes…" 

Speech codes are university policies or regulations that prohibit speech that would be protected by the First Amendment off campus. As the video states, several schools ban "jokes," including Davidson College and Murray State University. Johns Hopkins University and California University of Pennsylvania both ban "inappropriate emails." Colorado College’s "red light" policy on "Respect" actually bans expression that might embarrass someone: "The college forbids abusive behavior, understood as any act which … produces ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other such result." 

For further explanation of what speech codes are and which schools have them, check out FIRE’s Spotlight database, which rates speech codes at more than 400 colleges and universities.

"Free Speech Zone" at the University of Cincinnati 

Until recently, the University of Cincinnati maintained an unconstitutional free speech zone that quarantined student expression to a small corner of campus and required students to register several days in advance in order to hold a protest or gather signatures. With the help of FIRE, and the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, the University of Cincinnati chapter of Young Americans for Liberty successfully challenged this code in federal court earlier this year. Just this summer, a federal judge ruled that UC’s zone "violates the First Amendment and cannot stand." The free speech zone at UC may be gone, but similar policies persist at far too many schools. You can read about a few of them here.

Davidson College "won’t let students ask other students out on dates"

Strange but true. In addition to banning jokes, as mentioned above, Davidson College’s policy includes "comments or inquiries about dating" as an example of prohibited sexual harassment. 

Speech codes at public and private universities

Speech codes at public schools violate the First Amendment, and speech codes at almost all private universities violate their own explicit promises to respect student speech rights. Check out this page to learn more about the difference between speech codes at public and private universities.  

"Know before you go"

Browse thefire.org, read FIRE’s Guides to Student Rights on Campus (especially the brand new Guide to Free Speech on Campus!), and watch FIRE’s videos on our Youtube channel to learn more about what rights students have on campus and how to protect them. Current students should check out the Campus Freedom Network, FIRE’s coalition of students, faculty, and alumni who work to promote free speech at their schools every day.

Also, if you are a high school student, don’t forget to enter our 2012 Essay Contest for the chance to win $20,000 in scholarship prizes!