Tonight, millions of Americans will watch the Ohio State Buckeyes battle the Florida Gators for college football’s national championship. Beverages and junk food will be consumed, face paint will be applied, and fight songs will be bellowed until voices go hoarse. (Indeed, I imagine that in many parts of Ohio and Florida, all of these things have already come to pass.)
While commentators and fans will spend the next several hours trumpeting the various strengths of each squad, gamely debating whether Ohio State’s Troy Smith is a more valuable quarterback than Florida’s unconventional tandem of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, we here at FIRE must push past the passionate partisanship to sadly remark that when these universities are involved, one sure loser can safely be ascertained long before kickoff: the United States Constitution.
Yes, while it pains us to rain on the nation’s pigskin parade, it must be remembered that each school enforces speech codes that clearly violate the constitutional rights of their students. Both the University of Florida (UF) and The Ohio State University (OSU) earned “red light” rankings on FIRE’s Spotlight, meaning that each has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.
At The Ohio State University, for example, students watching tonight’s contest in their dorm rooms should be advised to keep their cheering as vanilla as possible, lest some wayward Florida fan overhear and take offense. That’s because according to OSU policy, “[w]ords and phrases that can be interpreted as harassing or intimidating are not acceptable.” Were an OSU student to loudly announce, say, that “the State of Florida is inhabited by toothless idiots”—well, punishment could certainly result. And that’s despite the fact that such a statement is clearly protected by the First Amendment, which OSU, as a public school, has a legal duty to uphold.
A similarly sorrowful state of affairs may be found at the University of Florida (UF), another public school that brazenly flouts the Constitution. For example, Florida fans should be wary of posting particularly powerful pro-Gator messages on the Internet, in case they contain language that could be construed as “obscene, abusive, or otherwise objectionable” by administrators. Such language, after all, is forbidden by UF’s policy on “Telephone and Data Hardware, Antennas and Cable TV” for the 2006-2007 academic year, despite the fact that it unquestionably enjoys First Amendment protection.
So tonight, enjoy the game: marvel at the incredible athleticism of these accomplished student-athletes, rejoice in victory, agonize over defeat. Just keep in mind that when the final whistle blows, signaling the end to this year’s college football season, all those UF and OSU students—be they hulking linebackers, marching band flautists, or just fans in the bleachers—must return to a public university that refuses to grant them the individual rights the Constitution requires.