Civil Rights Experts: Florida Universities Prime Offenders Against Students’ Free Speech

November 13, 2012

Each of the 10 public colleges and universities in Florida evaluated by a major civil liberties organization has "some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech," and nearly all of them have "at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

That’s the verdict of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan civil rights organization dedicated, in its own words, “to defending core constitutional rights on university campuses.” 

Last week the foundation set its sights on Tallahassee’s own Florida State University in a memo addressed to libertarian student activist David Brunal.

Brunal, a senior at FSU who is active in both the College Republicans and College Libertarians, decided to scrutinize his university’s speech codes after hearing a representative of FIRE speak at a recent conference hosted by Young Americans for Liberty. Finding several sections troubling, he reached out to FIRE for advice on what FSU could do to bring its speech code up to constitutional par.

FSU has been singled out for criticism by FIRE since at least 2005, and attorney Azhar Majeed, the foundation’s associate director of legal and public advocacy, was more than happy to oblige Brunal’s request for a review of the university’s speech policies.

"In my experience, FSU has one of the highest counts [of unconstitutional speech policies] of any college or university out there,” Majeed told Sunshine State News.

FIRE’s profile of the university lists 12 different polices it says violate students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, though the Nov. 8 memorandum singles out just three of these: 

  • Free speech zones: FSU designates just three areas on campus as “open platforms” where students may rally, protest, demonstrate, or pass out leaflets. According to Majeed, “[t]here is nothing reasonable … about transforming the vast majority of the university’s property —— indeed, public property —— into a censorship area by providing students with only three designated areas for free speech on the entire campus. The generalized concern for order … is neither specific enough nor substantial enough to justify limiting the vast majority of student speech in this manner.”
  • Harassment policies: FSU’s student conduct code prohibits “[c]onduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for another person. This includes unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate, or irrelevant sexual or gender-based behaviors, actions or comments.” Majeed says this is one of the university’s most egregious free-speech violations, as “inappropriateness,” “irrelevance,” “unwantedness,” and “unwelcomeness” are all hopelessly subjective concepts: “Students’ expressive rights are left at the mercy of administrators charged with interpreting and enforcing this policy, or of complaining students, no matter how unreasonable or hypersensitive their sensibilities may be.” Majeed says the university needs to adjust its definition of sexual harassment to comply with the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999: unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” —— i.e., offensive to a hypothetical “reasonable person.”
  • Policies on tolerance, respect, and civility: The policies set forth in the document “Values and Moral Standards at The Florida State University” prohibit not only “sexist” and “racist” speech, but even racist “assumptions [and] attitudes.” They also prohibit speech that is not “characterized by mutual respect and equality.” Majeed says that “a public university such as FSU simply may not dictate that its students hold particular beliefs under pain of punishment, nor may it proscribe them from holding particular beliefs.” Neither, he says, can it prohibit students from expressing beliefs about race or sex that other students might find morally offensive. He concludes: “FSU can easily revise its speech code by making clear that the value statements made therein are entirely aspirational, and that no student will face investigation or disciplinary action for failing to abide by its terms.”

Brunal tells the News he is sharing the memorandum with peers in several student organizations to decide what course they will take in trying to get the university to revise its speech policies, which he says have had a chilling effect on some campus activities.

Nine additional state schools, and two private universities, are similarly cited by FIRE for free-speech violations. 

“The vast majority of Florida schools have at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts free speech,” Majeed tells the News. “That’s certainly a poor record, and it’s somewhere around average in terms of university performance in other states.”

Attorney Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, tells Sunshine State News that the university speech violations his foundation documents every day are not isolated anecdotes but part of a nationwide trend, one which he tries to bring to public attention in his just-released book, "Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate."

Lukianoff strongly rebuffs FIRE’s frequent characterization in the media as a conservative watchdog. “[A] lifelong Democrat who says he has no intention of ever voting for a Republican,” he contributes a regular column to the liberal Huffington Post.

“I’m a political liberal, and an atheist, even though I spend a lot of time defending evangelical Christians,” he tells the News. “My vice president is a conservative Republican, my legal director is a former Green Party member and [at present] a Democrat, and I work side by side with a female Jewish libertarian and a Muslim-raised liberal.”

His transpartisan street-creds notwithstanding, Lukianoff admits that the concerns he raises are often dismissed by his fellow leftists as just so much conservative conspiracy-mongering.

“One of the reasons why I wrote ["Unlearning Liberty"] is that I think that our society has come to see college censorship as something that isn’t that big of a deal,” he says. “I’ve been trying to tell people about case after case in the Huffington Post since 2007. In some of these cases, people’s careers are being ruined.”

Lukianoff rattles off several recent examples, including:

  • A SUNY Oswego journalism student suspended for telling interviewees they did not have to say positive things about one of the school’s hockey coaches.
  • “Gay” and feminist groups not being allowed to protest a September campus appearance by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan at Christopher Newport University in Virginia
  • A libertarian student at Ohio University was prevented by school officials from posting political posters critical of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
  • A student at Auburn University was singularly prohibited from putting up a Ron Paul banner on his dormitory window, despite the university’s repeated tolerance for other students’ violations of a supposed policy against such decorations.

    Lukianoff referred Sunshine State News to a recent study documenting that only about 30 percent of college seniors, and 17 percent of college professors “strongly agreed” that it is “safe” to hold unpopular positions on campus. He cited other research that suggests that the more “educated” (i.e., schooled) a person becomes, the less likely he is to discuss politics with people he disagrees with.

“Universities are sending a powerful message to think twice about what you say,” he says. “The more education you have, the tighter your echo chamber.”

Lukianoff hopes his own activism and research will sensitize more people, whatever their political orientation, to the authoritarian tendencies of state universities.

“We’ve gotten so obsessed with the culture wars, that when someone is censored who is not ‘on our side,’ we don’t care, and that’s very worrisome,” he warns. “Free speech is an issue that should transcend partisan politics; restrictions on speech affect everyone across the spectrum.”

Reach Eric Giunta at or at (954) 235-9116.