FIRE Statement on Student Protests and Demands

March 13, 2019

The First Amendment protects most peaceful protest. Because FIRE is proudly nonpartisan, we take no position on the vast majority of issues raised by student protesters. If student expression is protected by the First Amendment, we defend students’ right to it. To the extent that the demands of protesters or the actions of college administrators in response do not impinge on student and faculty rights, FIRE has no institutional opinion on those demands or actions.

FIRE’s general neutrality does not represent a judgment about the issues raised, or the decisions made in response. Supporters of virtually every political and social position under the sun may be found on our campuses, and may be relied upon to zealously advocate for their interests. FIRE’s role in such debates is not to pick sides but to zealously advocate for the right of all students and faculty to peacefully speak their minds.

At times, student protesters demand limitations on expression they dislike, coercive mandatory trainings, and/or the punishment of their student and faculty opponents, including suspension, expulsion, or termination. Students are free to call for censorship of views they do not share and the punishment of those who hold those views. If students peacefully calling for censorship were to be threatened with official punishment for doing so, FIRE would defend their rights to free expression.

Yet our defense of the right to call for illiberal restrictions in no way means that FIRE supports those calls. To the contrary, we strongly believe that they are misguided, myopic, and contrary to our nation’s best tradition of free expression. FIRE opposes demands to reduce, eliminate, or violate the freedoms protected by either the First Amendment or private institutions’ comparable promises.

While students may call for censorship, college administrators and other agents of the college (including student government bodies) may not accede to any such demands. Students, on their own, do not have a responsibility to honor the Constitution or institutional promises of freedom of expression. Colleges and universities do, and must refuse to give into demands that would compromise their ability to be a place where community members, as the Supreme Court wrote in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, “remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, [and] to gain new maturity and understanding.”

For the “marketplace of ideas” to survive on campus, calls for punishment of speech and enforced political orthodoxy must not succeed. FIRE fights to ensure that they do not.