This article appeared in NY Daily News.
When politicians talk about college, their thrusts are usually about getting more people to attend or helping more families afford it. Now and then, we discuss what students are actually learning.
But there’s another profoundly important concern that far too often falls off our radar screen: the frequently poisonous culture of our campuses, which discourages free thought and debate.
It is shockingly easy for college students to be punished just for saying the “wrong” thing. As a First Amendment lawyer and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending student and faculty rights, I know firsthand how colleges across the country silence speech.
And every time they do, students learn the wrong lesson about what it means to live in our free, diverse democracy.
The most common way colleges censor students is by enforcing speech codes — campus rules that outlaw student expression protected by the First Amendment.
Ever heard of “free speech zones”? Today’s students have, because all too often they’re forced into these tiny areas of campus just to speak their minds. Just this past summer, a political student group at the University of Cincinnati filed suit against their school after they were forced to limit their signature gathering to just 0.1% of campus.
Outrageously, the school even warned the students that cops would be called if they were seen outside of the zone. Thankfully, a federal judge struck down the university’s policy in August on First Amendment grounds. But far too many colleges maintain similar free speech quarantines.
New Yorkers might say, “Speech codes could never fly here!” But Empire State schools censor students, too. One of the most egregious offenders is Syracuse University, twice named to FIRE’s list of the worst colleges for free speech.
In the last two years alone, Syracuse threatened to expel a law student for running a parody blog about law school — and effectively expelled an education grad student for complaining on Facebook about a comment he thought was racist. (FIRE’s efforts salvaged the academic careers of both students.) As a bonus, Syracuse’s police chief threatened to crack down on “offensive” Halloween costumes in 2010 — appointing himself sole judge of what counts as “offensive.”
Cornell prohibits “making bias-motivated jokes or statements.” This idea might sound nice until you realize that it bans not only jokes that nearly everyone would find offensive, but also comedians like Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman. Should Cornell be able to punish students for repeating a Jon Stewart joke about Republicans from previous night’s “Daily Show”?
And what about students who might want to make an argument about a culturally sensitive political topic — say, immigration, LGBT adoption or the Israel-Palestine conflict? Under Cornell’s policy, a wide range of political speech can easily be classified as a “bias-motivated statement,” meaning that important debate can be stopped before it starts.
Columbia has a “harassment” policy that prohibits not just real harassment but also “offensive conduct or comments.” Personally, I’m offended by policies that limit free speech; does that count? If not, why not?
Columbia’s code also bans “inappropriate sexual innuendoes or humor.” But who decides what’s “inappropriate?”
Similarly, NYU’s Sexual Misconduct Policy bans “insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading or ridiculing another person or group.” Think about how broad that is: Any teasing of any person for any reason qualifies as “sexual misconduct.” The wrong word said to the wrong person might escalate into a disciplinary hearing.
When it comes to protecting free speech on campus, colleges in New York, like those throughout the rest of the nation, have a lot of work to do.