PHILADELPHIA, December 29, 2015—Free speech issues on campus shot to the forefront of the national conversation this year. As 2015 comes to a close, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) looks back on a year in which protests roiled more than 75 college campuses, congressional leaders debated students’ civil liberties on multiple occasions, and newsmakers ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to President Obama felt compelled to chime in on the state of free speech at America’s colleges and universities.
“In FIRE’s 16-year history, never has the issue of student and faculty rights on campus been more prominent in the national dialogue than it has been this year,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “FIRE received more requests for help from students and faculty members, more requests for expert commentary from national media, and more inquiries from state and federal legislators than ever before. As the nation’s leading defender of individual rights on college campuses, FIRE vigorously defended student and faculty rights on campus, in court, in state and federal legislatures, and in the media.”
FIRE’s top stories from 2015 include:
- Starting in November, protests swept the nation’s college campuses after the University of Missouri student group “Concerned Student 1950” gained national media attention for its ouster of university president Tim Wolfe. Since then, students at more than 75 colleges and universities have made various demands of their administrations to address what they perceive to be systemic and structural racism on campus. Some of the demands, such as those at Yale University, expressly call for censorship and are a cause for concern. The attention these protests garnered helped facilitate difficult but essential conversations about the role of free speech on campus.
- On three separate occasions this year, President Obama weighed in on campus free speech issues. In September, he said college students shouldn’t be “coddled and protected from different points of view.”
- For the first time since FIRE began tracking speech codes on campus, fewer than half of America’s colleges maintain policies that severely restrict students’ right to free speech, according to the findings of FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2016 report. In addition, George Mason University, Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Western State Colorado University, the University of North Florida, and Purdue University Calumet eliminated all of their speech codes this year, earning FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating.
- On January 6, the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago released a powerful statement on the importance of freedom of expression on campus. Since the statement was released, FIRE has encouraged other universities to adopt its principles. So far, Princeton University, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, American University, Chapman University, Winston-Salem State University, and the University of Wisconsin have all either endorsed the Chicago statement or embraced similar sets of principles.
- FIRE’s unprecedented and undefeated Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, which celebrated its first anniversary in July, coordinated three lawsuits and settled four more in favor of First Amendment rights in 2015. The seven total settled lawsuits have restored the free speech rights of almost 200,000 students.
- On July 23, more than eight years after his unjust expulsion, student Hayden Barnes’ federal civil rights lawsuit against Georgia’s Valdosta State University and former VSU president Ronald Zaccari concluded with the announcement of a $900,000 settlement.
- This summer, FIRE testified in front of Congress twice, once on campus free speech issues, and once on the need for meaningful due process protections in campus adjudication hearings. Following the hearing on free speech issues, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte sent letters to the presidents of over 160 public colleges and universities across the country that receive FIRE’s “red light” Spotlight rating to ask them why their policies fail to protect the First Amendment rights of students and faculty.
- In North Dakota, a bipartisan “right to counsel” bill that gives students at the state’s public institutions the right to hire lawyers to represent them in non-academic suspension or expulsion hearings passed the state legislature nearly unanimously. In Missouri, FIRE’s Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE Act), which eliminates unlawful free speech zones, also passed with bipartisan support.
- FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt teamed up to co-author the cover story of the September issue of The Atlantic. The article, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” went on to become the second most-read cover story in the history of The Atlantic.
- Comics Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld noted the growing conflict between comedy, hypersensitivity, and political correctness on campus. To examine this trend, FIRE partnered with DKT Liberty Project and Korchula Productions to produce Can We Take a Joke?, a documentary about what happens when outrage and comedy collide.
- FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program received over 800 requests for help from students and faculty members across the country in 2015—more requests than any other year in FIRE’s history. FIRE’s defense of student and faculty rights took us to Texas Christian University, the University of Oregon, the University of Tulsa, and many more schools this year.
“This year has been a mix of good and bad for student and faculty rights on campus,” said FIRE’s Shibley. “For example, fewer campuses have severely restrictive speech codes than at any time in the past eight years. However, FIRE remains concerned that more schools are adopting overly restrictive definitions of sexual harassment that infringe on free speech rights, as recommended by the federal Department of Education. As we move into 2016, those who care about individual rights on college campuses cannot rest on 2015’s victories. There is still much to be done.”
FIRE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 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.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org