FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff has a column up on The Huffington Post about the spate of restrictions on political speech that are cropping up on campus in the run-up to the Presidential election. Much of the censorship appears to be driven by a nebulous fear among administrators that allowing students and faculty members to speak their minds would imply that the university is endorsing a particular issue or candidate.
Well, thanks to some genuine legal ambiguity left by a murky Supreme Court case, a wild excess of caution, and some crazy interpretations of existing law, too many colleges seem to have lost sight of free speech, academic freedom and the whole "marketplace of ideas" thing.
True, both public and private universities do have legal duties related to their status as government instrumentalities (public schools) or 501(c)(3) non-profits (private schools) which prevents them from institutionally endorsing candidates (or even appearing to do so), lobbying for legislation or raising money for candidates. Therefore, university bans on administrators using university letterhead to endorse or shill for candidates, for example, are reasonable and required by law. But universities go off the deep end when they translate this common-sense duty into somehow meaning that no one is allowed to engage in partisan political speech on campus.
Thus, Greg offers some common sense guidelines for colleges to follow:
Colleges worried about losing their tax-exempt status should follow these simple instructions:
1. Take a deep breath.
2. Ask yourself: "Can the partisan speech or expressive act in question reasonably be construed as the official stance of the university, as opposed to the individual opinion of a student, student group, faculty member, or staff member speaking as private citizens?"
3. If the answer is "no"―and it will usually be―you probably should not be worried.
4. On the other hand, if you have a provost saying that "State University hereby endorses Barack Obama," or a Dean of Students refusing to recognize any student group except those who support Nader/Gonzales―well, then you should probably be concerned.
Greg also mentions three of our cases where administrators have gone too far: University of Illinois, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Oklahoma. At the University of Oklahoma, students were warned not to use their university e-mail accounts for "the forwarding of political humor/commentary" and the school has still not clarified to the campus community that this restriction only refers to persons speaking officially for the university.
Political speech is at the very core of what the First Amendment was meant to protect, and a free society directly depends on the freedom to speak out about political issues or candidates. That’s why it is so important right now for FIRE to speak out distinctly and loudly in defense of free expression on campus, as we did this week in our Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus.