To try to summarize FIRE’s major successes in 2011 would-more than in any other year of FIRE’s existence-tell only part of the story. In 2011, FIRE recorded 31 public victories on 29 campuses, with total enrollments of more than 500,000 students. Of these victories, 10 consisted of successful policy reform efforts-including both Arizona State University’s and James Madison University’s attainment of FIRE’s coveted "green light" speech code rating.
FIRE’s successful defense campaigns account for the rest of the total. While all of our campaigns were crucially important in fighting for the rights of students and faculty around the country, some of them stand out for being particularly outrageous in the scale, scope, relentlessness, and in some cases Beckettian absurdity of colleges’ violations of the rights of students and faculty. In short, here are some of the particularly momentous victories by which FIRE will remember 2011.
- At the University of Wisconsin-Stout, theater professor James Miller, in a nod to fellow fans of the cult-favorite science fiction show Firefly, posted an image of Nathan Fillion’s character Malcolm Reynolds outside his office door. The image featured a popular quote from the show’s pilot episode, reading, "You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed." The chief of Stout’s police department removed the posting, preposterously informing the professor that it was unacceptable to have such references to "killing." Understandably irked by Stout’s censorship, Miller then posted a satirical cartoon reading, "Warning: Fascism" outside his door in protest. Not only did the same officer remove this second posting, citing its satirical depictions of "violence and death," she also informed Miller that Stout’s threat assessment team had been alerted to his speech. Even after FIRE made Stout an object of national ridicule for its blatantly unconstitutional censorship, Stout initially doubled down on its actions, saying that it would commit such censorship again and disgracefully citing on multiple occasions the shooting tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech to justify its unjustifiable preemptive strikes on free speech. Finally, after a concerted national media effort, aided by the mobilization of Nathan Fillion’s and sci-fi author Neil Gaiman’s 2.5 million-plus Twitter followers and more than 1,000 letters written to Stout Chancellor Charles Sorenson from concerned citizens (among them many Firefly fans), the university finally stated that it would no longer censor Miller’s postings.
- Reaching near-Stout levels of absurdity, Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) in North Carolina suspended student Marc Bechtol for two semesters after he criticized one of CVCC’s financial dealings on the college’s Facebook page. After the Higher One financial services company entered into a partnership with CVCC and began marketing itself to CVCC students, Bechtol took to CVCC’s Facebook page and jokingly wrote, "Did anyone else get a bunch of credit card spam in their CVCC inbox today? So, did CVCC sell our names to banks, or did Higher One? I think we should register CVCC’s address with every porn site known to man. Anyone know any good viruses to send them?" He immediately added a second comment, "OK, maybe that would be a slight overreaction." Nonetheless, days after he posted the comments, a CVCC administrator yanked Bechtol from class and suspended him from campus for two semesters, claiming that his message "indicate[d] possible malicious action against the college," and that it violated CVCC’s policy against "[c]ommission of any other offense which, in the opinion of the administration or faculty, may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community." After FIRE intervened, CVCC dropped all charges against Bechtol.
- Western Washington University investigated the protected speech of student Jacob Ramirez after the student wrote the message "F the Police" on a parking ticket he received from WWU’s parking services division, as well as on his signed check paying the fine. Two weeks after remitting payment for the ticket, WWU informed Ramirez that he was being investigated under WWU’s "Harassment and/or Threats of Violence" policy, and that his protected message may have constituted an "unwanted and/or intimidating contact and/or communication of a threatening nature." Fortunately, after a letter from FIRE, WWU quickly dropped its investigation. To its credit, WWU also forthrightly admitted that it had been inappropriate to use its student conduct code as a vehicle for investigating protected speech.
- Faculty at Nassau Community College (NCC) in New York were repeatedly subjected to violations of their First Amendment rights when the college tried to cage their peaceful protests-literally. At rallies on July 20 and August 3, 2011, members of the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers were kept behind metal barricades which dramatically restricted their freedom of motion and their ability to distribute promotional literature. Participants in the July 20 rally were given a notice stating that "Any person leaving the designated area with the intent to protest will be warned that he/she must return to the enclosed area. If that person persists, his/her right to remain on the campus may be forfeited." NCC police also bizarrely told participants that they were not allowed to distribute leaflets because they had not been approved by NCC’s student government. While the police did not try to enforce such a nonsensical restriction at the second rally, they also would not permit faculty to leave the corralled area to distribute their leaflets while also carrying their protest signs. Following a letter from FIRE, the college sent the NCCFT a faxed statement acknowledging their right to fully express their First Amendment rights on the campus-just in time for a faculty rally on August 17.
- To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, students at Northern Arizona University (NAU) peacefully distributed miniature American flags inside NAU’s student union. The students were told repeatedly by NAU administrators that they were not allowed to distribute their flags inside the union without first obtaining a permit. When the students declined to submit to NAU’s attempts at prior restraint, they received disciplinary notices from the university for alleged "[f]ailure to comply with the directions of university officials or agents" and "interfering with or disrupting university-sponsored activities." Fortunately, NAU dropped charges against the students involved before their scheduled hearings. All is not yet well at NAU, though-not while it continues to maintain a solicitation policy stating that "any student and/or student organization planning … the distribution of materials on campus must obtain permission from the Office of Student Life."
- Among the most outrageous cases we saw this year, the University of North Dakota suspended student Caleb Warner for three years after finding him guilty of sexual assault. What made this case so outrageous was that the Grand Forks police department, examining the exact same evidence available to UND administrators, not only declined to bring charges against Warner but charged his accuser with filing a false police report. Warner’s accuser left the state, and has never returned to face the charges. UND initially refused to grant Warner a rehearing, indicating that it was content with the decision it reached using the perilously low "preponderance of the evidence" standard of proof. Finally, however, after FIRE Chairman Harvey Silverglate brought national attention to Warner’s plight via a column in The Wall Street Journal, UND agreed to reexamine Warner’s case, and ultimately decided to vacate its earlier finding against him.
For those who may not be familiar with these important FIRE cases, I encourage you to visit the case pages we maintain for each case and to learn the full extent of the violations of student and faculty rights that took place at these institutions. Keep reading The Torch through the end of the month for more highlights of FIRE’s efforts in 2011, courtesy of my fellow FIRE staffers, and stay with us as we cruise full steam ahead into 2012.