Transcript, “From Berkeley to the ‘Blueprint’: A History of Free Speech on Campus With Professor Dave”

By August 26, 2013

Meet Dave.

Dave was a born philosopher, an intellectual rebel. When he got to college, he rejoiced in being free to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable. At the University of California, Berkeley in 1964, Dave fit right in as the free speech movement swept campus. He felt free to speak his mind.

When Dave graduated, he wanted to help make sure everyone would get that same opportunity. So he became a professor at the University of Michigan.

In the classroom, Dave wanted his students to challenge conventional wisdom and explore new ideas. He was sure they’d learn something new­—and so would he.

But as the 60s gave way to the 70s and 80s, something strange began happening.

On some campuses, avoiding offending anybody became more important than debating ideas. Universities began adopting “speech codes”—policies that punished expression that some found insulting or uncivil.

Michigan had one of these policies. It prohibited expression that might “stigmatize” an individual.

The policy seemed awfully broad to Dave—he was pretty sure he “stigmatized” somebody just the other day.

Dave didn’t want to get into any trouble, so he steered class discussions away from more difficult or unsettling topics.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before a federal district court held that Michigan’s new policy violated the First Amendment.

With the speech code gone, Professor Dave felt free to resume teaching his class just as he was before.

But professors and students at other schools weren’t safe. Over the next decade, speech codes just like the one struck down at Michigan popped up nationwide.

The codes were often hidden within school harassment policies, but were used to punish all sorts of speech.

At the University of Pennsylvania, one student was charged with racial harassment for yelling “shut up, you water buffalo” to a crowd of people making a ruckus outside of his dorm room late at night.

Despite their losses in the court of law and the court of public opinion, these university speech codes continued to spread on campus.

The situation got so bad that in 1999, a professor and a lawyer joined together to start the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The group’s mission was to fight back against the speech codes censoring so much student and faculty expression.

Professor Dave watched with relief as FIRE successfully defended a student who was found guilty of racial harassment for simply reading a book.

Another student who was charged with harassment for his alleged involvement in an anonymous, satirical blog about life in law school.

A professor who was found guilty of sexual harassment for teaching a class about the drug war.

And many more students and professors who were punished for nothing more than exercising their basic First Amendment rights.

Through public pressure, FIRE had even eliminated some of country’s worst speech codes.

FIRE fought and won, time and time again. Things were looking up.

But then … something Professor Dave thought would never happen happened: a federally mandated speech code.

On May 9, 2013, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education announced a new “blueprint” for campus sexual harassment policies that outlaws “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature”—including speech.

This new mandate read just like the bad policies Professor Dave had fought back against since the 80s.

Under this definition, he was pretty sure he would be considered a sexual harasser—and so would everyone else on campus.

Ever speak out for or against gay marriage?

Tell a friend about a Louis CK or Sarah Silverman routine?

Read a book for class with sexual themes?

Ask someone on a date who wasn’t interested?

Under the plain language of this new government mandate, you could be a harasser.

This has to be a misunderstanding, thought Professor Dave. This was ridiculous— unreasonable. And if talking about sex is off-limits, what’s next? He’d seen how vague policies like this had been abused before.

Clearer heads would prevail—right? Wrong.

Professor Dave found that reasonableness didn’t matter. If the most sensitive student on campus finds expression unwelcome, a school is required to investigate it.

Not only that—the college doesn’t even need to find someone guilty of violating the policy before punishing them.

But Professor Dave is not giving up hope. With the help of FIRE, he’s joining hundreds of students and faculty members nationwide to fight against the federal government’s unconstitutional mandate.

Dave became a professor so that he could ask hard questions—sometimes uncomfortable, unwelcome ones. Now he’s prepared to ask them of the government.

Make your voice heard. Learn how you can help FIRE and Professor Dave fight to protect free speech on campus by visiting the link below.