Stossel’s Latest Column Focuses on FIRE, Free Expression

By November 23, 2011

FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate and I were pleased to be guests on veteran journalist John Stossel’s television show Stossel, on Fox Business Network, last week—and this week, Stossel’s latest nationally syndicated column highlights FIRE’s work defending free speech on campus.

The column features our recent work at Northern Arizona University:

FIRE lawyers defended students at Northern Arizona University who wanted to hand out small American flags to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. They planned to distribute the flags outdoors, but it rained. So they went inside the student union, where four different university officials told them to stop.

The students refused, and two were charged with violating the student code. FIRE helped the students get media coverage that pointed out that the First Amendment protects students at public institutions. The school dropped its case against the students.

Discussing free expression generally, Stossel writes:

Under President Woodrow Wilson, Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for calling for draft resistance during World War I. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, led by that alleged civil libertarian Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Today, fortunately, no one goes to jail for criticizing the draft, or the U.S. government’s wars. So we’ve made progress — in some areas. But in others, we’ve regressed. I once interviewed someone who said words are like bullets because words can wound; this justified some censorship in his eyes.

Ugly words in a workplace can indeed make it hard for someone to succeed at work, and racism in school can make it hard to learn. But I say words are words and bullets are bullets. Speech is special. We should counter hateful speech with more words — not government force.

Stossel’s take on the importance of free speech—and the proper response to speech we dislike—is absolutely correct. All of us here at FIRE are grateful for his attention to FIRE’s work and the lasting importance of free speech in our democracy.