Political speech and college campuses go together well—just ask students at the University of Mississippi, Washington University, or Hofstra University, who have each had an opportunity to participate in hosting presidential debates at their respective institutions these past few weeks. But of course, presidential candidates aren’t the only citizens who have the right to engage in political speech on campus. Students, staff, student groups (both partisan and non-partisan), and faculty all enjoy a First Amendment right to political expression at public colleges and universities and a parallel guarantee of freedom of expression at most private institutions. This is as it should be. After all, as the Commission on Presidential Debates knows well, what better place than a university—identified by the Supreme Court as "peculiarly the marketplace of ideas"—to grapple with the complex political issues of our time? History shows that great American political leaders from every party have been forged in the passionate dialogue on campuses across our country.
In light of the robust national tradition of political speech on campus, FIRE has been dismayed to note a seeming avalanche of case submissions concerning the censorship of political expression on campus over the past several weeks.
As our press release today notes, FIRE has challenged the censorship of political speech in two recent letters. First, we sent a letter to the University of Illinois (UI), where faculty members were informed in a recent newsletter from the school’s Ethics Office that they were not allowed to engage in partisan speech as pedestrian as wearing political buttons or affixing political bumper stickers to their cars. Our outrage at the unconstitutional restrictions announced in the newsletter was echoed in letters from the ACLU, the Illinois Association of Scholars, and the National Association of Scholars. As national media attention followed, UI reversed course, announcing a clarification of the policy that permitted faculty members to exercise their right to political speech. Our second letter was sent to the University of Oklahoma, where students and faculty were notified last month that "the forwarding of political humor/commentary" via university e-mail accounts was prohibited. Like UI, the University of Oklahoma corrected its starkly unconstitutional prohibition in its response to us, but it has yet to inform its students of this crucial clarification.
In addition to the situations at the University of Oklahoma and University of Illinois, FIRE has received many other complaints about political expression being quashed on campus. For example, there were the cousins from the University of Texas at Austin last week, who faced expulsion over political signs posted in their dorm room window before national media attention prompted UT’s president to suspend the policy under pressure. FIRE has also received reports of suppression of political speech at Fresno Pacific University, Louisiana State University, and Cuyamaca College.
These cases have demonstrated to FIRE the need to reiterate and emphasize the protections that apply to political speech on campus. Today, in an effort to ensure that our institutions of higher education serve as a true marketplace of ideas this election season, FIRE issued our 2008 Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus, outlining specific guidelines on political expression for faculty, staff, and student speakers on public and private campuses.
We urge all university community members to check it out, and we sincerely hope it helps prevent further censorship in these last few weeks before the election. As always, we trust you to keep us posted, and we’ll do the same.