How some U.S. colleges limit freedom of speech

January 23, 2013

College freshmen are lined up and asked to choose sides on a political issue. Those who pick the "wrong" side are sent to re-education classes for a week and monitored thereafter.

A professor is reprimanded for explaining the origin of a politically sensitive term.

Another student’s grade is in jeopardy for failing to write the president and promote a far-left cause. Still another is punished for reading a book about the sinister history of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems that someone was "offended" by the picture on the cover.

Is it North Korea, Cuba or the former Soviet Union?

No. These and many other tortuous tales of rights abuses are examples of what’s happening today on many university and college campuses throughout the United States — according to a new book titled, "Unlearning Liberty" by attorney Greg Lukianoff.

Some in authority at these institutions seem to believe their views on social truths are absolute. There is no need for a diversity of ideas or even a rational discussion that probes specific ideology. If anything, opposing views are a threat.

Lukianoff, a Stanford Law School graduate, considers himself a liberal, and backs most present-day left-of-center causes. However, as a supporter of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, even he is shocked by the abuse of power happening at many American post-secondary schools.

He believes that if ideas have merit, they should be discussed in an open forum, where all are explored and evaluated. Bullying and intimidating students into preconceived conclusions on social issues are not the functions of higher education in a free society.

Lukianoff is president of an organization known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Its purpose is to support students and faculty whose First Amendment rights have been trampled.

The first step for his organization in dealing with a reported civil rights abuse is to contact the offending institution and explain alleged violations.

Responses from these schools vary from none at all, to apologies and corrections. Most violations, however, do not go away quietly. Often, public exposure in the local press does the job. Still other institutions hold fast to their illegal practices and require lawsuits to be filed.

Most of these outrageous cases appear to be happening on the East Coast or the Midwest. However, California is not immune from this problem. A few University of California campuses and at least one California State University campus have come under FIRE’s scrutiny.

The author reveals that private institutions have more freedom to restrict individual rights since they are not state-sponsored. However, taking money from the federal government for various purposes can put them under the Office of Civil Rights umbrella.

Thanks to what is known as the "Leonard law," California is exceptional. This puts private high schools, universities and colleges in the same arena as public educational institutions with regard to First Amendment free speech rights.

Despite noble intentions, oppressive speech codes and other forms of intimidation have brought a code of silence to many on campus who may hold a variety of viewpoints. In various surveys, less than 20 percent of college students felt they could discuss controversial issues openly. Since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, even off-campus statements by students have been subject to disciplinary action.

The saddest part of all, as Luikanoff points out, is that most college undergraduates don’t have a clue that their rights are being violated. Some, with the encouragement of professors, believe "free speech" means the right to shout down and disrupt the parlance of others — somewhat reminiscent of European fascists in the 1930s. They also believe they have a right to ban individuals with dissenting points of view from speaking.

Unfortunately, campus speech and thought control does not seem to be a problem that is going away anytime soon.

Schools: University of California