SPLC’s Goldstein: Know Your College’s Commitment to Free Speech Before You Go

By on March 31, 2010

As the U.S. Postal Service prepares to be flooded yet again with the hundreds of thousands of envelopes big and little, containing within them college admission decisions for America’s high school seniors, the Student Press Law Center’s Adam Goldstein has some useful advice for those contemplating the next step in their lives. Fittingly, he uses dating, that other nightmare of late adolescence, as a metaphor for the decision-making process they now face.

In a blog at The Huffington Post, Goldstein writes:

If someone asked you to start a serious relationship after a couple of dates, you might start by doing some research. Check out their Facebook, find out if their relationship status is set to "married," for example. Look for wall posts suggesting this person has some habits or baggage that makes them a bad choice. Read status messages and look for statements that you can’t tolerate hearing from your significant other.

Researching colleges should work much the same way. Use a search engine to look for the institution’s name with the word "censorship," for example. See how many times the institution has been called out for censoring free expression on sites like the Student Press Law Center or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Search Twitter for status messages from students that indicate the college has been treating its students with less than total respect.

FIRE, of course, couldn’t agree more, and takes every opportunity to say so—never more emphatically than with our yearly advertisements in U.S. News & World Report calling out the schools on our Red Alert list. Before students make this very important (and very costly) decision, they should know exactly what they’re signing up for. FIRE’s Spotlight database of speech codes at more than 400 American colleges and universities is a perfect place to learn the ins and outs of their chosen colleges’ policies, and our free Guides to Student Rights on Campus can help college-bound students understand exactly what their rights are and how to know when they are being violated. 

To give just one practical example, Virginia-born seniors at Gonzaga College High School (my alma mater) in Washington, D.C., would do well to know as they consider their in-state options that the University of Virginia carries a "red light" rating from FIRE. The College of William and Mary, on the other hand, is one of only eleven colleges in the United states to earn a "green light" rating. Any of my fellow Eagles considering Liberty University, meanwhile, should know just what rights they’re forfeiting when they step onto campus. All of this they can learn by visiting our case page, searching our Spotlight database, and reading our blog.

In a time when four years of college can cost over $200,000—money that, as The Boston Globe points out, could buy you a jetpack, 100 rounds of golf at Pebble Beach, or a decade at Red Sox Fantasy Camp for you and three friends—students simply can’t afford not to know before they go. Choosing your college based on the prettiness of the window dressing is easy and tempting, but, as Goldstein puts it "the college that was soft-spoken, handsome, and polite in the brochure might easily turn out to be the University of Chris Brown once you matriculate." Once students are at college, their best bet is to register for FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network

Thanks, Adam, for this useful and timely message. It’s a warning FIRE has given time and again over the years, and it always bears repeating.