After the student newspaper at Indiana University-Bloomington (IU) ran an article recently about IU’s “yellow light” speech code rating, members of the IU student government have expressed their intention to work towards reforming IU’s speech codes and earning a “green light” rating from FIRE. This is wonderful news. Murat Kacan, chief of communications for the Indiana University Student Association (IUSA), told the Indiana Daily Student that
IUSA vehemently opposes any University code or rule that seeks to restrict or infringe on any student’s rights to assemble, advocacy and expression. We hold the First Amendment to be amongst our greatest rights and have no tolerance towards its repression in any form.
As the Daily Student article mentions, FIRE’s “yellow light” rating of IU—like all of FIRE’s ratings—is based on IU’s written speech codes. Students sometimes ask us about this rating system, since it doesn’t take into account the degree to which a particular university administration enforces those written policies. When speech codes are not enforced, it may seem in practice that a university is very tolerant of free speech. As we have written in the past, however, policies prohibiting free speech infringe on students’ rights regardless of whether they are actually enforced. Such policies have a “chilling effect” on free speech, wherein some students reading the policy will simply refrain from legitimate expression because they fear punishment. Therefore, even if a university chooses never to enforce a speech code, a substantial amount of speech is still suppressed. Moreover, just because one administration chooses not to enforce a particular rule does not mean that a future administration will do the same. As a result, so long as written rules allowing for the punishment of legitimate expression exist, the right to free speech is not safe.
It is always exciting when students take ownership of their rights and confront their administrations about the all-too-common abuses of speech codes. And if past history is any indication, student activism on campus is a fantastic way to bring about swift and comprehensive change. For example, following a summer internship with FIRE, former William & Mary student (he graduated this spring) Braum Katz made it his mission to persuade the William & Mary administration to reform its unconstitutional speech codes. Thanks to Braum’s hard work, William & Mary eliminated every last one of its speech codes and is now one of the few institutions to earn a “green light” rating from FIRE. Similarly, after FIRE named James Madison University our Speech Code of the Month in October 2009, students there began pressuring the administration to revise the offending policy, and positive change quickly followed.
We are confident that IU students can help bring about similar changes at their university, and we stand ready to help in any way we can. Stay tuned to The Torch for the latest developments.