School books with apple on desk
College Students and Faculty Return to Campus with FIRE on Their Side

September 3, 2015

  • FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has restored the free speech rights of nearly 200,000 students and counting
  • Over the summer, UNC Chapel Hill and Western State Colorado University earned FIRE’s “green light” rating for free speech
  • In July, FIRE helped pass a new Missouri law banning unconstitutional “free speech zones” at the state’s public colleges

PHILADELPHIA, September 3, 2015—More than half of America’s top colleges and universities maintain policies that infringe upon the free speech rights of students and faculty. But as the new academic year begins, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is working hard to change that—via litigation, legislation, and hands-on policy change with students, faculty, and administrators who want to protect campus rights.

At the end of the spring semester, FIRE helped a student in Texas sue to defend her free speech rights in FIRE’s latest Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project case. Nicole Sanders sued Blinn College after she was told she needed “special permission” to display a gun rights sign and collect signatures for her student group on campus. Since 2014, FIRE’s unprecedented and undefeated Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has coordinated 10 lawsuits against public colleges and universities that have restricted First Amendment rights. As part of the six settled lawsuits—including a settlement at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona this July—FIRE has helped restore the free speech rights of nearly 200,000 students and secured more than $300,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.

FIRE also works proactively with college administrators to ensure that campus policies respect student and faculty rights and avoid costly litigation. Over the summer, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Western State Colorado University earned the highest, “green light” rating for free speech from FIRE. Administrators at both schools worked with FIRE attorneys to reform their speech codes. Students, faculty, and administrators seeking to learn more about their institutions’ policies can visit FIRE’s Spotlight database, which features policies at more than 400 of America’s top colleges and universities.

FIRE also works with state and federal lawmakers to support legislative efforts to protect student and faculty rights. Students in Missouri saw a victory for their expressive rights in July after Governor Jay Nixon signed into law the Campus Free Expression Act, which prohibits public colleges and universities in the state from unconstitutionally restricting student speech to tiny, out-of-the-way “free speech zones.” FIRE worked with members of the legislature to ensure this important piece of bipartisan legislation became law.

Capitol Hill also stepped up this summer to put pressure on colleges and universities to reform unconstitutional speech codes. In June, FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff testified in front of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice about the state of free speech on America’s public college campuses. And in August, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte sent letters to the presidents of 161 public colleges and universities that received FIRE’s lowest, “red light” speech code rating to ask them why their policies fail to protect the First Amendment rights of students and faculty.

National media have not ignored the developments surrounding student rights on campus. The Atlantic’s September issue featured a cover story by FIRE’s Lukianoff and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt about the growing trend of students demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.

Similarly, some of our nation’s top entertainers have voiced concern about campus culture. Earlier this year, comedian Chris Rock went on record saying that he does not perform at colleges anymore because students are “way too conservative […] in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.” Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, and others have also noted the conflict between comedy and hypersensitivity on and off campus. In the coming months, a FIRE-supported documentary, Can We Take a Joke?, will be released. The documentary, which features many FIRE cases, examines what happens when outrage and comedy collide.

Students heading back to campus this fall should avail themselves of FIRE’s many resources. From first-year orientation programs to student fees and funding, FIRE’s Guides to Student Rights on Campus offer the most comprehensive overview available of civil liberties law on campus. This year, FIRE released its updated Guide to Due Process and Campus Justice, which introduces readers to both legal and moral arguments in support of due process protections, explaining their application on private and public campuses. Finally, FIRE has designed a pocket Constitution specifically for student activists, which will be available for distribution by Constitution Day, September 17.

For those students who might find their due process or free speech rights violated, FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program stands ready to come to their aid. Students and faculty can submit their cases to FIRE with our easy-to-use case submission page.

“FIRE’s approach to protecting civil rights on campus takes us wherever we see those rights under threat,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “From Chapel Hill to Capitol Hill, students and faculty can count on us to come to their defense when their fundamental rights are violated.”

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.

CONTACT: 

Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; nico@thefire.org