Freedom of speech on college campuses seems to ebb and flow—periods of rampant censorship are followed by movements for truly open discourse, which in turn are followed by attempts to silence “offensive” speech. Unfortunately, as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff writes for Minding the Campus today, colleges and universities are now home to a “renaissance in campus speech-policing.”
FIRE has seen too many instances of unlawful censorship in each of our 15 years of existence. But recent attempts at censorship reveal not just incorrect ideas about the scope of the First Amendment and misguided takes on free speech principles, but also a worrying readiness to follow others’ lead without considering whether their actions are legal or even practical.
For example, Greg explains how colleges and universities have responded to an agreement among the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the Department of Justice, and the University of Montana:
The first sign that things were about to get much worse came from the Department of Education when it issued its famous “blueprint” for harassment policies in a settlement with the University of Montana in 2013. In that agreement—proclaimed by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice as a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault”—the agencies defined harassment in a way that would be laughed out of court if challenged.
A letter sent to me from the head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights seemed to backtrack from the blueprint somewhat. But the fight goes on, as colleges nationwide have begun to adopt the broad blueprint definition. Walter Olson penned an important blog entry recently explaining how an increasingly aggressive Department of Education is encouraging not only campus due process violations in relationship to harassment and assault, but speech-policing as well.
Following the University of Oklahoma’s expulsion of two students for their participation in a racist chant—without due process, and despite the fact that the speech was constitutionally protected—other schools were quick to punish racist and purportedly sexist speech, too:
This case seems to have emboldened universities, including the University of South Carolina, which immediately suspended a student for allegedly writing a racist slur on the whiteboard. The University of Mary Washington dissolved its men’s rugby team because some of its members were recorded singing a raucous, bawdy song at an off-campus party. At Duke, the university is refusing to give additional details about a student who allegedly publicly displayed a noose on campus, other than to say the student is being investigated for “potential criminal violations.” …
Meanwhile, at Bucknell University, three students were summarily expelled after allegedly using a racial slur on a radio program.
Students, too, have joined the push to punish constitutionally protected expression, demanding what Greg calls “freedom from speech”—the (imaginary) right not to hear ideas that offend or upset them.
Progress for free expression on campus is being made through litigation, legislation, and cooperation with administrators, and Greg writes that he is “hopeful that the pendulum will swing back towards a robust and truly pluralistic vision of freedom of speech.” He warns readers, though, that “we can’t rely on this to simply happen on its own. Free speech has always been a fragile right, and if we lose it on campus, we risk losing it entirely.”
Read the rest of Greg’s article over at Minding the Campus.