Some Freedom Awards of Note

By June 12, 2008

Last week, FIRE celebrated the award of the prestigious Bradley Prize to FIRE Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus Alan Charles Kors. There are some other recent and upcoming awards of note.

In March, the 2008 Campus Outrage Awards, shaming the "crazy and absurd antics of college life," recognized FIRE’s cases at the University of Delaware (a mandatory thought reform program for all residence hall students, including the teaching that all whites are racists) and IUPUI (where a student-employee was found guilty of racial harassment for reading an anti-Klan book).

In April, the 2008 Jefferson Muzzle awards recognized FIRE’s cases at Valdosta State University (where a student was expelled for a Facebook.com collage that advocated against new parking garages) and Brandeis University (where a professor was found guilty of harassment and had a monitor placed in his classes after he criticized the use of the term "wetbacks"). The Muzzles "draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment."

Today, some controversy is brewing around the announced award of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, "the Nation’s highest civil award," to Donna Shalala (along with five others) on June 19. We at FIRE do not take a position on whether someone deserves such an award, which can be based on a lifetime of service and achievements that are unrelated to individual rights. But in the area of individual rights, we remember Shalala for her role in two cases, FIRE’s case at the University of Miami (where a conservative student group was not allowed recognition simply because it was conservative) and a speech code case at the University of Wisconsin prior to FIRE’s founding. Alan Charles Kors wrote on the Wisconsin case in 1999. John Leo wrote in 2007:

As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in the late eighties, [Shalala] proved a fervent early advocate of campus speech restrictions. Though Shalala occasionally praised free speech, she and her team imposed not only a full-fledged student speech code, later struck down in federal court, but also a faculty code [that] was a primitive, totalitarian horror. Professors found themselves under investigation, sometimes for months, without a chance to defend themselves or even to know about the secret proceedings. One female professor said: "It was like being put in prison for no reason. I had no idea what it was that I was supposed to have done." …

The First Amendment forces got a lucky break when the university signed a foolish contract with Reebok, in which it received millions of dollars in exchange for the use of the company’s footwear by campus sports teams. The contract included a clause forbidding negative comments on Reebok products by any "University employee, agent or representative." The clause greatly irritated the anticorporate campus Left, which had usually been lukewarm or indifferent to free-speech concerns, helping convert some of its members to the anti-speech-code side….

New national groups have joined the fight for free speech on campus (and off), among them the Center for Individual Rights, the Alliance Defense Fund, and FIRE, the most relentless of the newcomers.

Elsewhere, the Institute for Humane Studies is sponsoring its first high school essay contest. Students are to focus on George Orwell’s Animal Farm and address the question, "Could the animals’ revolution have succeeded?" The deadline is July 31.

Finally, no list of such awards is complete (I’m sure I’m missing several) without the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards. Of note this year is a new Freedom of Expression Award, a "seed grant to fund the work of a noteworthy advocate for the First Amendment." Get your nominations in by Independence Day.