Most people will tell you that they support free speech. When people ask me what I do and I tell them I work for a free speech organization, the reaction is almost uniformly positive. Everyone seems to like the Bill of Rights, at least in theory. Dig a little deeper, however, and the waters become muddy. People don’t always see what’s wrong with policies intended to protect students from hurtful, offensive remarks. Yes, we support free speech, they say, but free speech doesn’t mean that people have the right to just go around offending other people.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society professes to support free speech. Its former executive secretary Douglas Foard wrote that “since its beginnings, Phi Beta Kappa has been committed to fostering freedom of inquiry…. For 225 years we have endeavored to place our chapters only at those American institutions of higher education that share our commitment to freedom of inquiry.” To become a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an institution must have “a system of governance that promotes academic freedom and vigor.” These statements are certainly admirable. However, FIRE wants to know what happens when we dig a little deeper.
This spring, Phi Beta Kappa appeared put some muscle behind its commitment to academic freedom. According to the Washington Post, it denied George Mason University’s application for a chapter based on academic freedom concerns after GMU rescinded a speaking invitation to Michael Moore. FIRE is pleased to see the organization taking steps to ensure that its member institutions are truly committed to academic freedom. But that means that Phi Beta Kappa must now address the most pervasive threat to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry at its member institutions: repressive speech codes. In the name of tolerance and civility, many Phi Beta Kappa member institutions maintain speech codes that run roughshod over the very freedoms that Phi Beta Kappa claims to hold dear.
Yesterday, FIRE sent a letter to John Churchill, secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, challenging the organization to take action against the suppression of free speech and academic freedom at seven of its member institutions. Phi Beta Kappa is a venerable institution and has great potential to effect positive change. FIRE hopes that Phi Beta Kappa will rise to the challenge and join FIRE in the fight to stamp out censorship and repression at American colleges and universities. We are eagerly awaiting Churchill’s response to our letter and will keep you posted on this developing situation.