President of FIRE speaks about assault on free speech at universities across the country

March 10, 2005

This past Tuesday, David French, HLS ’94, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), spoke to a gathering of HLS students about how restrictive speech codes at universities are undermining the educational values upon which these universities are founded.

French observed that even though he came to HLS from a religious college, not much changed in terms of the educational atmosphere. "I was going from one religious school to another religious school…it was just a different kind of religion." This was a time according to French when Harvard was referred to as "Beirut on the Charles".

Upon arriving at HLS, French explained that he was taught a specific brand of orthodoxy, much like a religious institution. He was taught that the law is an oppressive force, with "torts as a means of oppressing minorities, women…civil procedure as a means of oppressing minorities, women…criminal law as a means of imprisoning minorities, women…"

As a 1L, French drafted a letter informing students they could get a partial refund on their health insurance fee if they opposed elective abortions. French then distributed the letter to students, informing them to return it to him if they wanted the refund. He received numerous responses and was elated at his perception of great interest until he actually read them. Most were hostile, including one that read "I want you to die you f***ing fascist pig." French explained that he was unprepared for the anger and hostility he faced as a student at HLS.

Continuing the religion theme, French drew on his experience with such hostility to his views and compared campus speech codes to religious blasphemy codes. Although French expressed admiration towards the good intent behind the codes, he believes their existence undermines the importance of the free exchange of ideas that should exist in a university setting. He listed numerous examples of speech codes going too far:

At one university, students put up posters supporting US troops and posters of Osama BinLaden with a targeting reticle. The university asked students to take the posters down because they were potentially offensive to Muslim students.

In New Hampshire, a student made a poster saying "Hey girls, want to lose the freshman 15?" and suggesting that female residents take the stairs instead of the elevator. The student, who lived on a high floor in his dorm building, was upset that lower level students were taking the elevator, resulting in long waits for higher floor residents. The university kicked the student out of the dorms, but as the case began drawing national attention, including interest by "The Daily Show" in poking fun at the incident, the potential for national embarrassment led to student being allowed back into dorms.

The hostility at Columbia University towards Jewish and pro-Israel students who reported being marginalized in class discussions and in interactions with faculty.

At California Polytechnic, a student was arrested by campus police for inviting a conservative black speaker to campus.

French believes that because of the preponderance of such incidents, the modern university is "not long for this world."

"In essence, what universities are doing is living a lie…universities have policies that are the opposite of what they say to the public, and the public is catching on," said French.

French also spoke about the imbalance between liberal and conservative faculty. At one school, French noted as an example, there was a department with 32 liberal professors and a single conservative. French believes that universities need to ask themselves if they are "fundamentally hostile to people who don’t share [their] point of view."

At the same time, French urged conservatives not use the bully pulpit to push their own agenda. "We have to have the consistency and integrity to uphold the values of the institution." French suggested that the pendulum not swing too far the other way, where conservatives create oppressive conditions towards liberals.

"We must defend those we disagree with and expect them to do the same," said French.

Daniel Sullivan, 2L, appreicated French’s points. "David French’s talk provided shocking examples of secular universities that violate First Amendment rights they claim to cherish. I’m glad to know that Mr. French and FIRE are working tirelessly to defend constitutionally protected individual rights on college campuses."

French’s speech was sponsored by the Society for Law, Life, and Religion.

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Schools: California Polytechnic State University Columbia University University of New Hampshire