Unfree Speech on Campus

December 12, 2014

at The Wall Street Journal

Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously postulated that the test of a free society is the ability to express opinions in the town square without fear of reprisal. Most American colleges wouldn’t pass that test, according to a new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire).

The foundation reports that 55% of the 437 colleges it surveyed this year maintain “severely restrictive” policies that “clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.” They include 61 private schools and 180 public colleges. Incredibly, this represents progress from Fire’s survey seven years ago when 75% of colleges maintained restrictive free speech codes.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough for First Amendment advocates this year was a Virginia law that bars “free-speech zones” on public campuses. As Fire explains, free-speech zones are a common tool that administrators use to restrict demonstrations to remote areas of campus. Colorado Mesa University limits free speech to “the concrete patio adjacent to the west door of the University Center.”

Such restrictions are unconstitutional, and many public colleges have lifted their quarantines after being threatened with lawsuits. In January a University of Hawaii administrator tried to stop students from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution outside the campus’s free-speech zone. After students sued, the university revised its policies to allow free speech in “all areas generally available to students and the community.”

Meantime, campus speech police continue to stretch the bounds of what they prosecute under the banner of threats and intimidation. New Jersey’s Bergen Community College in January placed a professor on leave for posting an allegedly “threatening” picture on Google+ of his seven-year-old daughter doing yoga in a Game of Thrones T-shirt that read “I will take what is mine with fire & blood,” a quote from the TV show.

At McNeese State University in Louisiana, students can be punished for bullying if they make “remarks that would be viewed by others in the community as abusive and offensive,” regardless of whether that’s their intent. The University of West Alabama bans “cyberbullying,” which can include sending “harsh text messages or emails.” Would that include scathing evaluations that professors email to students?

Many colleges are also blurring the definition of harassment, which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 defined in the educational context as unwelcome, discriminatory conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”

Yet Colorado State University-Pueblo defines “harassment” as anything that inflicts “psychological and/or emotional harm upon any member of the University community through any means, including but not limited to e-mail, social media, and other technological forms of communication.” Sony ’s Amy Pascal should count herself lucky that she’s not a student at CSU after her emails were released by hackers.

Notice how colleges are extending their speech clampdown to the Web and social media. The Internet policy at Athens State University in Alabama now bans “[c]reating, displaying, transmitting or making accessible threatening, racist, sexist, and offensive, annoying or harassing language and/or material.” Note to the wise: Don’t tweet anything from the Onion. Actually, don’t tweet at all.

Colleges of all places should be encouraging free inquiry and debate. They betray their values, and America’s, when they fail Sharansky’s basic test of a free society.

Schools: Colorado State University – Pueblo Bergen Community College McNeese State University University of Hawaii at Hilo Athens State University