PHILADELPHIA, December 30, 2013—As 2013 comes to a close, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) looks back on a year that was headlined by dire threats to free speech and student rights on campus. Yet through concerted effort, FIRE was able to win crucial legislative and regulatory victories against those threats while continuing to expand the sphere of the First Amendment and due process on campus.
The year’s top threats to student rights on campus came, unfortunately, from the federal government. Most prominently, in May, the Departments of Education and Justice used a settlement with the University of Montana to attempt to implement what they called a “blueprint” for sexual harassment regulations on campus. This blueprint would have served as a de facto national speech code at nearly every university in America, public and private.
“The federal ‘blueprint’ effort was certainly the gravest threat to free speech on campus in 2013,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff.
After months of activism from FIRE and other organizations, with an assist from Senator John McCainand attention from major media ranging from the Los Angeles Times editorial board to Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator George Will, the new head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) signaled that the government was finally backing away from the idea of the settlement as a national “blueprint,” although OCR has more to do by letting every college in the country know that they will not, in fact, be held to the blueprint’s unconstitutional standards.
Rolling back this regulatory effort was actually FIRE’s second major Washington victory of the year. Thanks in part to FIRE’s advocacy, an attempt to add a provision to the Violence Against Women Act that would have permanently written the low “preponderance of the evidence” standard for sexual misconduct cases on campus into federal law was defeated in Congress. A 2011 OCR guidance letter requiring that evidentiary standard is still in place, but FIRE is continuing its efforts to get it withdrawn. Use of this “50.01% likelihood” standard on campus means that students are being officially labeled as rapists by colleges using deficient procedures and marginal evidence—procedures that have led to a rash of lawsuits by the accused against their own universities.
While Washington mostly saw battles to preserve important student protections, far more positive developments happened in several states. Virginia and Idaho passed laws guaranteeing the right of belief-based student organizations to make belief-based choices about how to govern themselves, while North Carolina passed a first-in-the-nation law guaranteeing university students the right to hire counsel when facing non-academic campus disciplinary action.
Other highlights of 2013 include:
- Oregon State University and Eastern Kentucky University eliminated all of their speech codes, earning FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating for free speech.
- A jury found former Valdosta State University (Ga.) President Ronald Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 for expelling student Hayden Barnes without a hearing for posting a critical collage on Facebook.
- In cooperation with the Bill of Rights Institute, FIRE launched a curriculum to teach high school students about their rights when they get to college.
- FIRE enabled student Robert Van Tuinen to file a federal lawsuit against Modesto Junior College (Calif.) after it denied him the right to pass out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus on Constitution Day.
- After two letters from FIRE, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued a line-item veto to strike an unconstitutional ban on faculty speech and research from the Wisconsin state budget.
FIRE will be starting 2014 with a bang by releasing its latest report on, and individualized ratings of, the speech codes at more than 400 of the largest and most prestigious colleges and universities in America at thefire.org/spotlight. FIRE will also unveil a brand-new, fully revamped website, new programs to reach out to even more of our nation’s students, and new efforts to defend the First Amendment on campus, so keep checking thefire.org for these developments and more.
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-2473; firstname.lastname@example.org