By Editorial at Richmond Times-Dispatch
In recent years, colleges and universities have come under tremendous pressure from a wide array of sources, from the federal Education Department to student activists on campus, that has led them to ride roughshod over the constitutional right to free speech.
Far too many public institutions have adopted campus speech codes that restrict not only where and when members of the community can speak freely to small “free-speech zones,” but also sharply curtail what they can say. Campus speech codes have prohibited everything from “humor and jokes about sex” to any expression that might “offend” anybody else at the university.
In recent years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has become something like the ACLU for higher education by defending students and faculty members, of every political persuasion, who have run afoul of such speech codes. By publicizing egregious cases and advocating for those censured, it has helped to roll back some of the more outrageous speech codes around the country.
Not long ago, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice about how much work remains to be done. “Highly restrictive speech codes are the rule rather than the exception on public college campuses nationwide,” Lukianoff noted. In some places, Lukianoff testified, speech codes “persist even in the very jurisdictions where they have been ruled unconstitutional.” (Only one public college in Virginia, Norfolk State, gets a red-light rating from FIRE, although several others get a yellow-light rating.)
Now the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Virginia’s 6th District Rep. Bob Goodlatte, has written to the presidents of 161 public institutions that have among the worst speech codes in the nation. The letter reminds the presidents of what they seem to have forgotten: Their institutions are part of the government and, as such, are obliged to adhere scrupulously to the First Amendment. That means they cannot censor speech just because it might hurt somebody’s feelings. It concludes by asking the university presidents “what steps your institution plans to take to promote free and open expression on its campus(es), including any steps toward bringing your speech policies in accordance with the First Amendment.”
Goodlatte’s letter serves as an important counterweight to the “Dear Colleague” letters and other regulatory decrees of the Education Department. It ought to put both the universities and the federal education bureaucracy on notice that they remain subject to the First Amendment, and any rules they consider should first be tested against it before moving toward adoption.
University administrators want to maintain a serene atmosphere on campus. And they certainly want to avoid the loss of federal funding that they might incur if they too blatantly flout the Education Department. But those desires do not trump the nation’s founding document and its most fundamental principles. Goodlatte deserves a round of applause for reminding them of that.