Saving free speech

April 9, 2007

It’s well known that you don’t have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is none.

But yelling “FIRE!” is precisely what one must do when one’s free speech rights are in danger on a college campus.

FIRE is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—a Philadelphia-based legal advocacy group that goes to bat for students whose rights to free speech and association are curtailed illegally by college administrators and policies gone horribly awry.

FIRE’s list of accomplishments is ever-growing, but here are just a couple of the latest:
– At Central Michigan University, liberal opponents of a conservative student organization called Young Americans for Freedom began infiltrating the group and hijacking it—and college administrators initially said there was nothing the group could do about it, because keeping others out on account of ideology was “discrimination.”

But, as FIRE reminded the school, if groups can’t associate with members who believe as they do, then their very existence is threatened and their rights of free association abridged. FIRE also cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

CMU, to its credit, quickly changed its policy to allow groups to allow only members who share the groups’ core beliefs.

– At the University of California-Los Angeles, protesters threatened to disrupt a libertarian group’s planned debate on immigration that would have featured advocates both for and against illegal immigration. As a result, the school attempted to charge the hosting organization up to $15,000 for security, which effectively canceled the debate.

Again, federal case law was on the student organization’s side, as FIRE reminded UCLA. The debate has been rescheduled for May 1, and the prohibitive security costs will not be assessed to the organization.

Thank goodness. Otherwise, anyone could chill free speech by simply threatening a protest and forcing a student organization to take on debilitating security costs.

The UCLA threat was hardly idle, and wasn’t just an impulsive thing: One would-be protester rallied his colleagues to “do what they did at Columbia and shut it down”—a reference to an ugly incident last October at Columbia University in New York, where protesters stormed the stage and prevented Minuteman Project border patrol group founder Jim Gilchrist from speaking.

FIRE doesn’t just represent conservative groups—it just seems that way, because it’s mostly conservative speech that is being silenced on college campuses.

Why in the world any speech has to seek outside protection from college administrations and their policies is beyond us. Free speech—as challenging, as provocative as it comes—should flourish nowhere more than at a college, where young minds are supposed to be stretched and challenged and inspired to travel to the stars.

But until that day, we’re sure glad the FIREfighters are there.

Schools: Central Michigan University University of California, Los Angeles Cases: Central Michigan University: Student Group’s Freedom of Association Under Attack University of California at Los Angeles: Controversial Student Event Cancelled