WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2017—On Inauguration Day, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent President Donald Trump an open letter urging him and his administration to protect the freedom of speech and civil liberties of America’s college students and faculty—millions of whom attend and work at schools with stifling and unconstitutional speech codes and unfair disciplinary procedures.
“I recognize that your administration faces serious challenges both at home and abroad, and I understand that protecting freedom of expression and fundamental fairness on campus may not appear to be an especially important task,” wrote FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff in the letter. “But I deeply believe that allowing the next generation of American citizens and leaders to be denied free speech and due process will have disastrous consequences.”
FIRE’s letter outlines pressing civil liberties concerns in higher education. The letter also suggests ways that the new administration can work to reverse harmful policies that stifle free expression and impair the reliability of campus tribunals.
Today, 93 percent of public colleges and universities have speech codes that run afoul of the First Amendment. Many institutions use those speech codes to engage in egregious acts of censorship. At Northern Michigan University, administrators threatened to expel students for sharing “self-destructive” thoughts with their peers. At California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, police stopped a student from handing out flyers because he was outside the school’s “free speech zone” and did not have a permit to speak.
FIRE’s letter also addresses the need to restore due process and fundamental fairness to campus tribunals. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education unlawfully mandated that institutions use the judiciary’s lowest burden of proof in adjudicating cases of sexual misconduct in campus disciplinary proceedings, which often lack even the most basic procedural protections used by civil courts.
“Campus tribunals are making life-altering determinations using a low evidentiary threshold that amounts to little more than a hunch that one side is right,” wrote Lukianoff in the letter. “This mandate is not just unfair to the accused—it reduces the accuracy and reliability of the findings and compromises the integrity of the system as a whole.”
FIRE wrote a similar letter to former President Barack Obama about threats to campus civil liberties on the occasion of his first inauguration in 2009.
“I am hopeful that you share our belief in the importance of free speech and due process and will take action to protect these commitments in our institutions of higher education,” wrote Lukianoff in the letter to President Trump. “Freedom of expression and due process are in serious need of protection on our nation’s campuses.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org