Going Through FIRE to Protect Our Rights: College Students Feel Heat on Campus Over Free-Speech Issues

April 20, 2015

By Editorial Staff at The Augusta Chronicle

Young people are the future. It stands to reason, then, that they must understand their freedoms if freedoms are to endure into the future.

Enter FIRE.

The nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org) helps protect students’ rights, particularly their First Amendment right to free speech.

Unless you’ve followed FIRE, you’d be amazed at how much those basic rights are under assault today on American college campuses – which, in the 1960s, actually came to symbolize free speech.

Like many college administrations, officials at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, not only set up a small “free speech zone” – as if our rights can be hemmed in like that – but also felt free to require a student, Nicolas Tomas, to get a permit and wear a badge to hand out written material.

“The university,” writes FIRE’s David Deerson, “put Tomas in a free speech quarantine. Even worse, he was forced to wear a badge indicating he was authorized to speak.”

The government basically licensing someone to speak?
That’s not just creepy and ominous, it’s also blatantly unconstitutional.

As Deerson notes, colleges and universities that trample the Constitution to silence or control speech tend to learn about the First Amendment the hard way: through embarrassing policy retractions and court fines and fees.

“At Citrus College in Glendora,” he wrote in the Sacramento Bee, “an administrator threatened to have student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle removed from campus because he asked another student to sign a petition outside the free speech zone. Citrus also required student groups wishing to express themselves to obtain permission from four separate college entities two weeks before any event – an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech. And Citrus’ ‘verbal harassment policy’ prohibited ‘inappropriate or offensive remarks,’ an unconstitutionally vague standard. The only sure way to stay out of trouble is to keep silent.

“Six months after Sinapi-Riddle went to federal court, Citrus agreed to revise its policies and pay $110,000 in legal fees and damages.”

And at Modesto Junior College in California, security officers prevented a student from handing out copies of the Constitution outside of the “free speech zone” – on Constitution Day in 2013.

“Never mind that he was literally holding the First Amendment in his hand,” Deerson writes. After legal action, the college eliminated its free speech zone and paid $50,000.

These Orwellian outrages are happening all across the country. Indeed, after years of defeating unconstitutional speech codes one by one in the courts, FIRE has launched an intensive “Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project” (www.standupforspeech.com), which will feature lawsuits against college speech codes in every federal court circuit.

The goal, FIRE says, is “to generate additional legal precedent, widespread media coverage, and a greater awareness of the importance of protecting the First Amendment rights of students and faculty at our public institutions of higher education.”

Few things are as important as the right to speak our minds.

We shouldn’t have to, but we should be willing to go through FIRE to keep it.

Schools: Modesto Junior College Citrus College California State Polytechnic University – Pomona Cases: California State Polytechnic University, Pomona – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project Citrus College – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit Modesto Junior College: Students Barred from Distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day