FIRE Asks Phi Beta Kappa to Hold Members Accountable for Speech Codes

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 30, 2005—Earlier this year, the Phi Beta Kappa Society made national headlines by rejecting George Mason University’s (GMU’s) application for membership after GMU cancelled a speech by filmmaker Michael Moore. Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is publicly urging this prestigious honor society to stand by its professed commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry by taking action against its member institutions’ many speech codes.
“Phi Beta Kappa’s concern for free speech is to be commended—but the GMU incident was one lecture, at one university,” declared FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Unlawful and immoral speech codes are rampant at Phi Beta Kappa member schools. If America’s oldest undergraduate honor society wishes to help in the battle for free speech and academic freedom on campus, the time to act has come.”
The controversy at GMU began in the fall of 2004, when Moore was scheduled to give a speech there as part of his “Slacker Uprising Tour.” GMU had agreed to pay Moore a $35,000 honorarium, and Moore had publicly stated that his intention in giving such speeches was to defeat President George W. Bush’s re-election bid. When state legislators criticized GMU for allowing Moore to speak, the university rescinded his invitation.
According to the Washington Post, Phi Beta Kappa cited academic freedom concerns when it denied GMU’s application for a campus chapter of the honor society in the wake of the Moore controversy. Given the Society’s professed commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE wrote to Phi Beta Kappa Secretary John Churchill yesterday to point out the speech codes that abound at Phi Beta Kappa member institutions. As FIRE’s letter says, “Nearly all of Phi Beta Kappa’s member institutions maintain speech codes of some kind, many of them unconstitutional or unlawful violations of contractual promises made to students and faculty.”
Phi Beta Kappa’s own guidelines stipulate that member institutions “must demonstrate that they have…a system of governance that promotes academic freedom and vigor.” Its former executive secretary also wrote in 2001 that the organization is “profoundly committed to safeguarding academic freedom” and has throughout its history “endeavored to place our chapters only at those American institutions of higher education that share our commitment to freedom of inquiry.”
FIRE’s letter specifically calls attention to outrageous codes at Cornell University, Oberlin College, The Ohio State University, Penn State University, Rhodes College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and West Virginia University. FIRE catalogues these institutions’ speech codes and hundreds of others in a comprehensive online database called Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource. FIRE has also explained in detail why speech codes are so objectionable in its free Guide to Free Speech on Campus.
“FIRE has long been at the forefront of exposing campus speech codes,” noted Lukianoff. “We look forward to Phi Beta Kappa’s assistance in addressing this ongoing national scandal.”
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, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, 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
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
John Churchill, Secretary, Phi Beta Kappa: 202-265-3808;

Cases: Phi Beta Kappa: Member Institutions’ Speech Codes