FIRE’s 2009 ‘Spotlight’ Report: Not News?

January 7, 2009

Last month, FIRE released our third annual report on campus speech codes, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses. In the report, we revealed that 270 out of 364 colleges and universities surveyeda little over 74 percentmaintained policies clearly restricting speech that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment. The report also found that public universities, in spite of their legal obligation to uphold the guarantees of the First Amendment on campus, maintained unconstitutional speech codes at a greater rate (77 percent) than did private universities (67 percent). All in all, the report documents the fact that colleges and universities continue to systematically violate students’ and faculty members’ right to freedom of speech.

In a column (subscription required) written last month after the release of the Spotlight report, Meredith Oakley at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette discusses the report and its troubling implications. Oakley writes that "some administrators are so concerned about their faculty and students and publications offending anyone" that they draft and enforce speech codes which "run roughshod over the First Amendment." She highlights the fact that none of the Arkansas schools surveyed for the report received a green-light rating, which she rightly proclaims "ought to be news in any freedom-loving state."

Interestingly, Oakley’s column also draws attention to the fact that the Associated Press did not run a news story on the release of our 2009 report. Oakley did some investigating about exactly why the AP ignored our report, and reports her findings in the column:

The explanation given to the local AP bureau and conveyed to this newspaper: The organization that researched and produced the report, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, "is an advocacy group out raising funds for its lawsuits and the [Philly AP] bureau is inclined to pass" on writing a story about it. If I had a dollar for every time the AP has written a news story about an "advocacy group," I could retire to the south of France. Make that a dime. I almost forgot the ACLU.

Indeed, FIRE is a not-for-profit organization, one self-described as being dedicated to preserving liberty on campuses throughout the United States, and that involves both advocacy and activism. Most recently, FIRE has taken on the case of the Michigan State University senior who was suspended for e-mailing some of the faculty about concerns over proposed schedule changes. […]

Of course, this case is right up FIRE’s alley, given that each year it surveys colleges and universities about "the extent to which schools are meeting their obligations to uphold students’ and faculty members’ rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and private conscience."

Oakley is quite right to say that campus abuses of liberty, as exemplified by the ongoing case at MSU and by the many unconstitutional speech codes surveyed for our Spotlight report, fall within FIRE’s particular expertise. The knowledge and experience that we have to offer when it comes to First Amendment violations on campus are unique and unparalleled. Moreover, our comprehensive Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource database and our careful methodology speak strongly in favor of the accuracy of our speech code report’s findings.

This same expertise is demonstrated in our Speech Code Litigation Project, through which we have amassed an unbroken chain of victories against campus speech codes. Thus far, the Speech Code Litigation Project has resulted in offending policies being removed by the school or struck down by the courts at six colleges and universities: Shippensburg University, the State University of New York at Brockport, Citrus College in California, Texas Tech University, San Francisco State University, and Temple University. That we have achieved these important victories while maintaining a perfect record, again, speaks favorably (to say the least) about our understanding of the constitutionality of speech codes. It is this understanding which allows us to produce as comprehensive and accurate a report as Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009.

We thank the Democrat-Gazette for drawing its readers’ attention to our 2009 report, and we hope that more media outlets will do the same.