Why Schools Should Remember the First Amendment

By August 13, 2008

On Monday, Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, had an excellent article in the Tucson Citizen on the denial of free speech rights to high school students. He points out that without ever experiencing freedom in the academy, "students will return to class this fall with little or no idea about what it means to be a free, active and engaged citizen in a democracy."

We at FIRE are familiar with this phenomenon at the college level, where too many administrators have forgotten that they are not parents and that their students are adult citizens. Students coming out of what Haynes calls "12 years of censorship and regimentation" often reach college without any idea of what it means to live freely or to engage in the marketplace of ideas, where one is confronted with concepts that one may find strange or even repulsive. Haynes writes, "Students have become canaries in the free-speech coal mine: We can predict the future health of freedom of speech in America by looking at how public schools live up to-or fail to live up to-the First Amendment." And if we look at how colleges and universities have lived up to-or failed to live up to-the First Amendment, we have a lot to fear, for too many colleges are failing to provide an education that prepares students to respect freedom of speech. Speech codes-often disguised as "civility" requirements or as harassment policies-teach students that official punishment for allegedly impure thought and expression is proper, rather than anathema, in a free society.

FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors has often said that "A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it and will not even know when it is lost." For example, take Roderick King, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, who thought that it was a legitimate expression of his free speech rights to tear out crosses in a prolife display because he disagreed with the message conveyed. That’s not free expression, it’s vandalism.

Then there was the case of the students at Washington State University who believed that their free speech rights included the right to the heckler’s veto. The students were loud and obnoxious and interrupted the satirical play Passion of the Musical. These students did this at the behest of an administrator, who had purchased their tickets to help them disrupt the play.

Not only are students often deprived of an education about free speech in high school, but college administrators add to the confusion when they pull such stunts.

Some professors have also done their part in this tragedy of mis-education. At Northern Kentucky University, Professor Sally Jacobsen led students in an effort to destroy a pro-life display in the name of expressing their freedom of speech. Again, Professor Jacobsen, vandalism is not free speech. Teaching your students that it is acceptable will do them, and you, no favors. Professor Jacobsen was placed on leave from the university and charged with criminal solicitation for inciting her students to commit the crimes of vandalism and theft.

I could cite endless examples of such illiberalism on campus. Haynes points out, however, that "Not all school officials make the false choice between security and freedom." He cites a few examples of stellar high schools that have stepped forward to protect the rights of their students. As for colleges, FIRE’s renowned study of campus speech codes, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2007, identified that only eight schools out of the 346 surveyed had policies that fully accorded with the protections of the First Amendment. That such a small number of schools fit in that category makes clear the pervasiveness of ignorance of what free speech protections for adult citizens entail.

Fortunately, FIRE has undertaken some serious efforts to combat this ignorance. FIRE’s Guides to Student Rights on Campus series consists of five handbooks to student rights covering free speech, religious liberty, due process, student fees, and first-year orientation and thought reform. All guides are available free to students upon request.

Also, earlier this summer, FIRE hosted its First Annual Campus Freedom Network Conference, a smashing success. Students from around the country were able to hear from free-speech champions including John Leo, KC Johnson, FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate, and others. See here for a full conference agenda and list of speakers.

In late April, FIRE launched the "Freedom in Academia" essay contest for rising high school seniors. High school students from across the U.S. are invited to write an in-depth essay explaining why free speech and First Amendment rights are crucial to higher education and how abuses of these rights harm education. Instructions can be found on the essay contest page. The first place award is a $5,000 scholarship, and the second place award is a $2,500 scholarship. The deadline is November 20, 2008.

And at the beginning of June, FIRE launched the "Freedom on Campus" student video contest. College students are invited to submit a film covering free speech or academic freedom issues on college and university campuses. (See the video contest page for more details.) The grand prize is $5,000, and two runners-up will receive $1,000 in addition to exposure on FIRE’s website and an invitation to attend FIRE’s Summer Conference. The deadline is November, 15, 2008.

FIRE has instituted the Campus Freedom Network in an effort to provide resources, networking opportunities, and inspiration to students across the country willing to engage in the battle for liberty on their campuses. Students can host FIRE speakers (book one today!) and otherwise work with CFN staff members to change the repressive policies on their campuses. All students concerned with the state of liberty on their campuses should join the CFN.  We’ll even send you a FIRE t-shirt just for signing up.

Haynes writes, "Here’s a concept: Freedom works." In light of Haynes’ article and FIRE’s case history, this is something universities, and other educational institutions, should keep in mind.