For those of you who didn’t get to see me on MSNBC this weekend, it was a fun time, and a chance to talk about the striking rise we have noticed in students getting into trouble for their speech on sites like MySpace.com or Facebook.com. As loyal Torch readers know, FIRE recently successfully aided a student at University of Central Florida (UCF) who was brought up on harassment charges for calling a student government candidate a “jerk and a fool.” Meanwhile, at Syracuse University, students who created a Facebook group to make fun of a teaching assistant were expelled from the class and placed on “disciplinary reprimand,” and two students at Cowley College in Kansas were banned from participating in theater department activities after they complained about the theater department on a MySpace blog. These are just three of a sudden upswing in cases of student censorship for online speech at both the college and the high school level.
One of the things that I find so telling about these cases is that they aren’t really particularly ideological; they are raw instances of administrators, faculty or student officials saying, “I believe in free speech and all, but I will not be mocked!” Sure, they often excuse their censorship with reference to harassment, tolerance, or civility, but in essence many of these cases come from the simple fact nobody—particularly people in authority—likes to be criticized. Fortunately, for the sake of meaningful dialogue, learning, and democratic society, no one has a right to be free from criticism. College administrators ought to remember that old classic we all learn as children: “Sticks and stones….”