This Week in the News: Lowering Due Process Standards and Unlearning Liberty

By May 20, 2011

Regular Torch readers know that two weeks ago, FIRE sent an open letter to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) about its April 4 "Dear Colleague" letter which, among other things, mandates that colleges and universities lower the standard of proof to a "preponderance of the evidence" standard when adjudicating student disciplinary matters concerning sexual harassment or sexual violence.

Our opposition to OCR’s letter is gaining more and more media attention. In her nationally syndicated column today (printed in National Review Online and elsewhere), Mona Charen quoted Greg’s concept of "unlearning liberty" to warn that efforts to classify offensive speech as harassment and to abandon due process protections are not only a recipe for disaster, but also a lesson in illiberal education.

Hans Bader mentioned our open letter in his Washington Examiner piece about the litany of due process problems within OCR’s guidance which, he lamented, has encouraged several schools already to lower their standards of proof. Bader also referenced Samantha’s and Erica’s Torch pieces on the matter over at OpenMarket.org. In student news, Will was quoted offering objections to the OCR guidance in an article by Samantha Forcum of the Daily Nexus, the University of California, Santa Barbara’s independent student newspaper.

Meanwhile, FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer’s April 6 column in The Atlantic about how the OCR letter sacrifices the rights of the accused to protect the sensibilities of the accusers was recently reprinted in spiked.

The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, a proposed bill that, like the recent OCR guidance, would require colleges to lower the standard of proof for sexual offenses to a "preponderance of the evidence" standard, as well as mandate relationship and sexual assault counseling for students at universities nationwide, also made the news this week. Robby Soave, in a column for the Student Free Press, discussed how Keith Edwards’ "She Fears You" student program, 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, could be a harrowing example of what such mandatory training might entail. Soave trumpeted FIRE’s victory at Hamilton College last fall, in which we ensured that "She Fears You" would not be a mandatory event for freshman males but rather was made optional at the last minute.

Meanwhile, Bucknell University’s free speech violations were hit on two sides on FOX stations. On FOX News’ Glenn Beck, Beck mentioned (at 5:04) Bucknell University’s shutting down of the Bucknell University Conservative Club’s (BUCC’s) attempt to sell "Obama stimulus dollars," which were meant to satirize President Obama’s stimulus efforts. BUCC member and former FIRE intern Kirby Thomas was in attendance. And last night’s Stossel, on the FOX Business Network, rebroadcast a show on campus free speech violations that prominently featured FIRE, Greg, and several students in FIRE cases. Among them, again, was Kirby, because Bucknell also had shut down BUCC’s "affirmative action bake sale."

A few weeks ago, Roman Caple, a senior who recently graduated from St. Augustine’s College (North Carolina), was denied the ability to walk at his graduation because of an innocuous Facebook post. Erica wrote a blog post last week lambasting St. Augustine’s College. This week, Amy Alkon referenced Erica’s post on Advice Goddess Blog in her post about the importance of free speech. FIRE is intervening in the case.

In other news, an article by Matt Bettonville in The Stanford Daily described how FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses influenced Stanford University to remove the online password barrier to its speech policies, improving Stanford’s speech code rating in our Spotlight database from "red light" to "yellow light."

Also out west, at the University of Oregon, a post in the Oregon Commentator, an independent student journal, praised FIRE for helping to restore funding to the paper after it was de-funded by the Programs Finance Committee a few years ago. (If that’s not enough incentive for you to check out the article, perhaps Adam’s eloquent poem there, “If I Ran the University Zoo,” is enough.

Finally, this week, the University of Virginia’s (UVa’s) official publication, The University of Virginia Magazinementioned the roles of FIRE and former FIRE intern Ginny Robinson in helping UVa eliminate its speech codes and improve its Spotlight rating from "red light" to "green light." It’s always good when a school not only protects students’ First Amendment rights, but also brags about it!