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On Constitution Day, FIRE Mails First Amendment Warning to More Than 300 Colleges

September 17, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 17, 2014—In a national certified mailing sent today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warns the leaders of more than 300 of our nation’s largest and most prestigious public colleges and universities that they risk First Amendment lawsuits by continuing to maintain speech codes that violate student and faculty rights. The letters are being mailed from the main post office near Independence Hall in Philadelphia today to mark the 227th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

58 percent of our nation’s public colleges and universities restrict student and faculty speech with blatantly unconstitutional policies, and 38 percent more enforce policies that are too easily abused to silence campus speech,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. “In July, FIRE launched our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project by announcing four lawsuits against institutions that have violated student and faculty First Amendment rights. Now we’re putting public colleges and universities across the country on notice—and inviting them to work with FIRE to fix flawed policies before they’re challenged in court.”

FIRE has posted online a sample letter to a public university with a speech code earning a “red light,” FIRE’s worst rating.

The letter informs college and university leaders about FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, announced in July with the filing of First Amendment lawsuits against Ohio University, Iowa State University, Chicago State University, and Citrus College in California. As the letter details, lawsuits will be filed against public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes in each federal circuit. After each victory by ruling or settlement, FIRE will target another school in the same circuit—sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued.

“FIRE prefers to secure students’ and faculty members’ free speech rights by working cooperatively with colleges and universities,” Creeley writes in FIRE’s letter. “However, FIRE will not hesitate to turn to the courts when necessary. Throughout our 15 years defending student and faculty rights, FIRE has consistently coordinated successful First Amendment challenges against unconstitutional speech codes.”

Colleges that wish to bring their policies into compliance with the First Amendment are urged to contact FIRE. FIRE offers resources such as its guidebook for college administrators, Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies, a bound version of which is included in every certified letter sent today. All consultations and resources are provided to colleges free of charge, in keeping with FIRE’s charitable mission.

“Public colleges and universities have no excuse for violating basic First Amendment rights by maintaining unconstitutional speech codes,” said Azhar Majeed, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program. “But they need not risk the possibility of an embarrassing federal lawsuit. They can easily rectify these policies by working cooperatively with FIRE, as the University of Florida and Plymouth State University have done recently.”

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 freedom 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:

Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; will@thefire.org
Azhar Majeed, Director, Individual Rights Education Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; azhar@thefire.org

Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project