PHILADELPHIA, December 29, 2014—For reasons both good and ill, 2014 will enter the history books as a major year for free speech, due process, and individual rights at our nation’s colleges and universities. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) won more meaningful victories for student and faculty rights than ever before and even published a book, Freedom From Speech, addressing new attacks on campus freedom and their causes. But opponents of those rights also found powerful new allies in the federal Departments of Education and Justice, driven by the explosive issue of sexual assault on campus.
“There’s no denying that 2014—FIRE’s 15th anniversary year—has been quite a year,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “We’re confident that FIRE’s defense of free speech and due process on campus will ultimately be successful, because these are timeless and fundamental American values. FIRE exists to vigorously defend individual rights from those who have convinced themselves that abandoning them is a quick and easy solution to the problems of the day.”
Highlights for campus rights in 2014 include:
- FIRE publicly launched its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project in July, coordinating the filing of four lawsuits on launch day and setting the goal of ending unconstitutional speech codes on public campuses for good. So far, FIRE has coordinated the filing of seven First Amendment lawsuits challenging speech codes. Three have already been settled in favor of students’ free speech rights, at Citrus College and Modesto Junior College in California, and at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Four other cases, at Western Michigan University, Chicago State University, Iowa State University, and Ohio University, are proceeding—and more cases are on the way.
- The University of Florida, Georgetown College (Ky.), and Plymouth State University all worked with FIRE to eliminate all of their speech codes, joining an elite group of only 19 schools in the nation that receive a “green light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight speech codes database, meaning their written policies fully protect student speech.
- With FIRE’s help, lawmakers in Virginia enacted a law ensuring that students at Virginia’s public institutions of higher education will not be limited to expressing themselves in tiny “free speech zones” or subjected to unreasonable registration requirements for speaking out. FIRE will push similar legislation in a number of other states in 2015.
Free speech and due process lowlights of 2014 include:
- “Disinvitation season” returned to campuses, as notable speakers such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, and women’s rights activist and critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali were either disinvited from or pressured out of giving commencement speeches at American universities. While such disinvitations happen year-round, this spring’s bout of intolerance shocked many Americans who did not realize how unfriendly to dissent and diverse ideas some colleges—and some students—have become.
- Pennsylvania State University, the University of Connecticut, and Georgia Southern University, among other institutions, adopted unconstitutional speech codes thanks to a “blueprint” for such policies issued last year by the federal Departments of Education and Justice. FIRE warned at the time that the so-called “blueprint,” issued as part of a settlement with the University of Montana, effectively mandated unconstitutional speech codes under the guise of Title IX compliance. FIRE sounded the alarm, and while the Department of Education backed away from calling the settlement a “blueprint” in a letter to FIRE, we warned that without a notice to all colleges that the settlement was no longer a blueprint, colleges would adopt it anyway—and that appears to be happening.
- California’s law mandating so-called “affirmative consent” for sexual activity on campus made a mockery of due process by turning a great deal of lawful sexual activity into “sexual assault” in campus courts—and it has spread to university systems across the country. Presented as an antidote for sexual assault on campus, such rules effectively shift the burden of proof in campus rape accusations to the accused. The cavalier attitude towards this recipe for injustice is exemplified by one of the California law’s co-sponsors who, when asked how the accused could prove that he or she had received the required consent, replied: “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“FIRE hopes 2015 will bring greater clarity in the area of campus rights, and that courts and legislatures will strike back against the worst abuses of 2014,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “We’re looking forward to working with students, faculty, administrators, and legislators to advance the cause of campus freedom in 2015.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org