This Week in FIRE News: Back to School Warnings

By on August 26, 2011

It’s an interesting start to the school year, especially for students and faculty members on the East Coast. After an unprecedented earthquake on Tuesday and with Hurricane Irene making a swift and ominous ascent up the coast, many college and university administrators are sending out severe weather warnings and even changing move-in policies. But while students and faculty are preparing for extreme weather amid settling into a new year, FIRE is sending out its own warning across the newswires to all college students and their parents to prepare them to defend their free speech and due process rights.

Yesterday, FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley wrote a column in the New York Post warning parents getting ready to send their kids to college about the intrusion into students’ freedom of conscience by many student orientation programs. Robert warns parents that orientation programs can often resemble brainwashing, telling students what they must think about sensitive social, political, and religious issues. These programs violate the students’ freedom of thought and conscience, both of which are protected by the First Amendment.

In the article, Robert highlights a particularly creepy freshman orientation program at Hamilton College last year. As part of the program, all first-year males were told that they must attend a lecture by outside speaker Keith Edwards entitled "She Fears You," based on the theory that men need a "combined emotional and cognitive intervention" to reform their deeply ingrained rape-supportive beliefs about gender and sexuality. Robert writes:

[ ... ] In New York, Hamilton College last fall ordered all first-year men to attend a "She Fears You" presentation, designed to get them to acknowledge their personal complicity (after just a month on campus!) in Hamilton’s "rape culture" and to change their "rape-supportive" beliefs and attitudes…

Did Hamilton warn incoming female students of the campus "rape culture" before it took their tuition? I doubt it. But publicity did force administrators to make the seminar optional — just minutes before it started.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also has more about Hamilton—and about the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ troubling due process guidance from earlier this year—in this article about mixed messages regarding sex in higher education.

Robert closes his piece by suggesting that parents remind their children that "every public college (and most private colleges) must leave students free to make up their own minds on such controversial ideas as ‘all white people are racists’ or ‘all men are responsible for rape,’" and that "College is supposed to teach you how to think, not what you must think." Be sure to read Robert’s article in full over at the New York Post or at Fox Nation.

Echoing FIRE’s warnings, The Augusta Chronicle (Georgia) ran an article on Wednesday further exposing the dangers to individual rights on college campuses. The Chronicle writes, "College is becoming more of an overprotective and controlling parental figure, rather than a place for professors and students, alike, to exercise their natural rights and not live in fear of being reprimanded for their opinions."

Elsewhere, as students were settling into the college routine, Syracuse University’s (SU’s) student newspaper The Daily Orange also reminded students about individual rights violations on college campuses. The paper rounded up the 10 most notable events that happened during SU’s 2010-11 academic year, and the investigation of Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL) student Len Audaer (a FIRE case with which Torch readers are surely familiar) made the list. Audaer was told in October 2010 that he was being investigated for harassment for his alleged involvement with the satricial blog SUCOLitis, which was meant to emulate The Onion. The blog included a disclaimer stating, "No actual news stories appear on the site." Yet "independent prosecutor" and SUCOL tax professor Gregory Germain threatened Audaer with expulsion, without ever revealing what expression in particular justified the charges or even who was charging him. Just days after our Huffington Post article naming the 12 worst colleges for free speech was published (with Syracuse at the top of the list), Syracuse dropped the entire prosecution.

Perhaps the most noteworthy warning of this week is the one issued by Sandy Hingston in an article for Philadelphia magazine’s latest issue, exposing the (previously mentioned) new federal threat to due process rights on campus regarding sexual misconduct and harassment—and the lawyers and organizations that profit from the mandate. FIRE works tirelessly to protect the rights of all students and the integrity of campus judiciaries by ensuring fair standards of justice, and we’re glad to see that this article reveals the flippant attitude towards fair procedures displayed by the lawyers who profit most from government threats to campus rights. This article is a must-read for parents, college students, and administrators nationwide, and FIRE will have much more to say about it next week.

Be sure to check in on The Torch next week as we prepare incoming and returning students, students’ parents, and faculty with the resources necessary to ensure the safety of individual rights on campus.