U.S. Senate to Discuss Speech Codes

October 28, 2003

PHILADELPHIA, PA�”For the first time in ten years, the U.S. Congress will consider the menace to free speech caused by campus speech codes. The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has invited Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), to testify on Wednesday, October 29, 2003. Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, chairman of the Committee, is holding the hearing as part of an effort to provide oversight on the critical topic of intellectual diversity in higher education.

“We are very fortunate to have this opportunity,” said Harvey A. Silverglate, co-founder and vice-president of FIRE. “This is an invaluable opportunity to share FIRE’s concerns about both speech codes and other abuses of student and faculty free speech rights with lawmakers. Senator Gregg and his colleagues should be commended for focusing the light of national attention on the vital issue of free speech in higher education.”

Lukianoff will alert the Committee to a number of ways in which the freedom of speech of college and university students is curtailed on so many campuses. Speech codes are, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception in higher education, and they include bans on “offensive speech” and “intolerant expression.” Often, they are inserted into “verbal conduct” sections of “harassment policies,” with the goal of suppressing “hostile” viewpoints and words. Because these codes are so overbroad that even mildly controversial speech can be punished under them, they have frequently been used to silence students and faculty on all parts of the political spectrum.

For example, Bard College in New York forbids “conduct that deliberately causes embarrassment, discomfort, or injury to other individuals or to the community as a whole,” ignoring the fact that in any debate, parties on one side will feel “discomfort” when their views are challenged. Similarly, Penn State asserts that “acts that show contempt” on the basis of “political belief” may be forbidden. FIRE has compiled policies from nearly two hundred leading schools across America at a new website, www.speechcodes.org, where students and the public can find crucial information on whether and how a particular school restricts freedom of speech.

The Senate committee will also hear about “speech zone” policies�”another threat to freedom of speech on a growing number of our nation’s campuses. Colleges and universities use such policies to restrict demonstrations and sometimes even displays and pamphleteering to a minute portion of the campus. One such speech zone at Texas Tech, a public university of 28,000 students, consisted solely of a gazebo 20 feet in diameter. Holding any expressive activities outside the gazebo required students to apply for a permit six days in advance of the planned event, thus eliminating the possibility of timely protests. A policy at Western Illinois University restricted students even further, providing only one “free speech area” on campus, restricting its use to business hours, and requiring a permit five days in advance in order to use the “free speech area.”

Lukianoff will also inform the Senate about one of the consequences of these institutions’ refusal to educate their students in freedom: the epidemic of college newspaper thefts that is plaguing the nation. Censorship of this kind usually involves students throwing away or even burning newspapers containing viewpoints with which they disagree. In the past decade, this brand of censorship has resulted in the theft of hundreds of thousands of copies of student newspapers.

Campus administrators steal and censor student papers too. At Hampton University in Virginia, the entire press run of last week’s Hampton Script was “confiscated” by administrators angry about the paper’s content. At Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, administrators took a different measure to ensure a paper there would never be read: they froze an entire year’s worth of printing funds for a student newspaper, The Hawk’s Right Eye, after it published articles they considered offensive.

“I am honored to have been invited to testify before the Senate,” said Lukianoff. “The regime of censorship at so many of our institutions of higher education must end if intellectual diversity is to flourish in academia.”

Mr. Lukianoff will testify at 2 P.M. on Wednesday, October 29, in Room 430 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC. A copy of Mr. Lukianoff’s written testimony to the Senate will be available after the hearing on the FIRE website.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses of higher education. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at campuses across America can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
Erin Rath or Joshua Shields, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions: 202-224-6770

Attached Files

Read the Testimony, PDF, 71.1 KB

Download file "5"