Today, FIRE joins individuals across America and around the world in reflecting upon the tragic events of September 11, 2001. As university students and professors from Maine to California host commemorations today to remember those who suffered and died six years ago, we take a moment to look back at how those events played out on campus in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and how their legacy continues to affect us today.
In the wake of the tragedy, FIRE was called on to defend liberty on campus as many universities reacted to the cataclysmic circumstances with sometimes shocking limitations upon students’ and professors’ free speech rights. At Central Michigan University, Lehigh University, and the College of the Holy Cross, administrators forced students and staff members to remove patriotic symbols—including flags—from their dorms and offices. Johns Hopkins University silenced a professor who voiced his support for an aggressive campaign against states that harbor terrorists, while Pennsylvania State University attempted to intimidate a professor into removing comments from his personal website that advocated for vigorous military action as a response to the terrorist attacks. Similarly, Orange Coast College suspended a professor for three months for hosting an open discussion of the September 11 attacks in his classroom, while the University of New Mexico punished a professor who joked that “[a]nyone who can bomb the Pentagon has my vote” (the professor profusely apologized for his insensitivity, but the incident nonetheless led to the end of his career). In all of these cases, FIRE reacted with vigor to contest the unjust and chilling actions of university administrators, achieving in most of the cases a reversal or a guarantee that such illiberal actions would not continue.
Today, colleges across the country are remembering September 11 with special speakers and events. Tonight, for example, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors will speak to a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania about individual rights. At Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Michigan, controversy surrounded one such memorial. A member of the Student Senate initially told College Republicans Co-Chair Amanda Zaluckyj that her group’s planned memorial, which involved planting thousands of miniature American flags on the university lawn, could not go forth because the event would interfere with a memorial planned by the student government. Although the College Republicans had been permitted to join with the student government in commemorating September 11 the previous year, this year the College Republicans were told that their participation in the memorial would make the event too partisan. Thankfully, the university settled the dispute by allowing the College Republicans to hold their memorial in an area outside the “free speech zone”—a matter that FIRE will be looking into. We’re relieved that the dispute was resolved, and we hope that today’s memorials, at GVSU and across the country, will proceed with the unity and collective reflection this day deserves.