Thinking About Going to a Red Alert School? Think Twice

By April 30, 2010

The Washington Post reported this week that before tomorrow’s deadline for admitted college students to decide where they’ll be headed this fall, some colleges are really rolling out the red carpet to sway some who have been offered admission:

With the national May 1 deadline for accepted students to declare where they will attend, schools are making last-ditch telephone calls, sending e-mails and holding campus tours for accepted students right up to the end of the month. They’re even offering to pay some of the travel costs of a visit to campus.

In fact, two Minnesota private schools, Saint John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, which share an academic program, are paying half the airfare for all accepted students to visit the campuses, offers that are among the most generous in the country, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

I wonder how many of these colleges are touting their free speech policies to give those admitted pre-frosh that last push needed to bring them in. Maybe there is a reason they don’t make too much of their free speech promises: Most colleges and universities maintain policies that unacceptably curb student speech.

To those hearing the siren songs of Brandeis University, Bucknell University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Tufts University: Beware! These six schools make up FIRE’s Red Alert list, and each earned its spot for good reason–their continuous and unrepentant disregard for the rights of their students or faculty members. How did they do so?

  • Brandeis punished a tenured professor for using the term "wetback" to critique it in a course on Latin American politics.
  • Bucknell denied a student group the right to hold an "affirmative action bake sale," and from distributing satirical "Obama stimulus dollars."
  • Colorado College punished two students for a parody flyer because some in the community found it offensive.
  • Johns Hopkins punished a student for a Facebook party invitation and used the incident as an impetus to enact a repressive "civility" policy.
  • Michigan State punished a student for e-mailing faculty about an important campus issue, and has since installed even tougher regulations on student use of MSU’s network.
  • Tufts found a campus newspaper guilty of racial harassment based on its content–some of it satirical, some of it factual.

Those who value their free speech should think twice about signing up for any of these six schools, each of which has proven itself all too willing to jettison their students’ and faculty’s rights. It may not be too late to change your mind. Or if you’re wavering till the last minute, maybe this information will tip the balance.

If it is too late, however, don’t despair. Michigan State, whatever it says, is still legally bound by the First Amendment. The others, even though they are private universities, all make strong commitments to free expression for their students–in policy, if not in practice–and FIRE will keep reminding them of their obligations and their derelictions for however long it takes until these wrongs are righted.

This point goes well for the rest of the universities in the United States, too. Those choosing to attend one of our nation’s many public schools can take comfort in knowing that the full force of the First Amendment is at their backs, and they can rightly be skeptical of any administrator who tells them that insensitive jokes, biting satire, or expression of what may be an unpopular opinion can bring with it the penalties of racial and/or sexual harassment. Those students entering one of our many private schools making strong commitments to student free speech can hold these institutions to their promises and remind them that these guarantees aren’t just talk–they must back up their commitments to free expression, not betray them with illiberal speech codes.

All students with an interest in learning about their rights on campus have numerous resources at their disposal, beginning with our website. Students can use our Spotlight database to research the speech codes in effect at their colleges or prospective colleges, and can even work to get the deficient ones rectified. They can also read our five published Guides to Student Rights on Campus to learn more about their rights, and how to know when they are being violated. They can read through our case history to learn what violations of student speech have happened at their schools, and how FIRE helped defeat them. Once on campus, they can join our Campus Freedom Network, with its coalition of like-minded students concerned about the state of liberty on campus.

When all else fails, FIRE is there to help, our effectiveness evidenced by our more than 170 public victories, affecting millions of students. For students who have educated themselves about their rights, however, hopefully our services won’t be needed.

Good luck to the Class of 2014!