Writing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, James Varney draws attention to the poor state of free speech at colleges and universities in the state of Louisiana, where, of eight institutions rated by FIRE, seven currently earn a "red light" rating and the eighth earns a "yellow light." As Varney writes, this places Louisiana among the worst states in the country when it comes to the prevalence and severity of campus speech codes.
Varney makes a number of astute observations about the harms created by schools deciding to maintain and enforce speech codes. Among them:
These speech codes are infuriating on two levels. On the one hand, First Amendment restrictions are anathema to a place devoted to nurturing, discoveriHng and exploring ideas. Certainly there can be no robust discussion when students and faculties are either worried of veering off some approved, often fluid line, or crossing a line none of them realized had been drawn.
It is a creepy environment indeed when administrators and, too often, some student leaders decide what ideas are verboten on campus. Nevertheless, such intellectual chicanery has been going on for decades. Surveying what he called, "the pall of orthodoxy on the nation’s campuses," back in 1992, Nat Hentoff captured the Orwellian outcome of barring speakers on campus when he wrote that, "seen in an egalitarian light…prohibiting people from hearing what they came to hear [is] actually an elitist authoritarianism."
Varney’s decision to quote Nat Hentoff (a member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors) is a good choice, as Hentoff is a very well-respected voice on free speech issues. Varney then continues:
Secondly, those within the Ivory Tower know well, or should, that they have no legal leg to stand on. Sooner or later, judges of all stripes strike down these codes: the First Amendment, thankfully, is virtually undefeated in court.
LSU, it would seem, may soon discover that again, as its "Free Speech Alley" – comprising 1,000 square feet on a 650-acre campus – faces a lawsuit brought by a pro-life plaintiff last month. The University of Cincinnati recently lost a similar case involving that school’s attempt to restrict the time and place where the U.S. Constitution held sway.
Varney is right to compare the First Amendment lawsuit that Louisiana State University is currently facing over its free speech zone with the University of Cincinnati’s free speech litigation debacle from earlier this year. I hope that LSU has the sense to end its fight with the Bill of Rights before it too suffers a defeat in federal court.
Finally, the Times-Picayune article concludes with an optimistic take from our own Samantha Harris:
"We would love to see some improvement in Louisiana," FIRE attorney Samantha Harris said. "Even though we come down hard on these universities that maintain unconstitutional policies, we’re also very eager to work constructively with administrations to improve the speech policies. We’d love to hear from administrators in Louisiana, we’d love to get the ball rolling on improvements."
Indeed, we hope that in 2013, the colleges and universities in Louisiana will take the opportunity to revise their speech codes. We’d love to work with them toward that goal, so hopefully Louisiana administrators will make calling FIRE one of their New Year’s resolutions! In the meantime, we appreciate the New Orleans Times-Picayune and James Varney taking the time to bring this important issue to light.