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Free Speech on Campus: The 10 Worst Offenders of 2014

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in The Huffington Post.

College is the place where students should be encouraged to, as Yale promises, “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” Unfortunately, schools all across the country not only fall short on promises of free expression and academic freedom but openly suppress constitutionally protected speech on campus by using tools such as speech codes to shut down forms of expression that might be uncomfortable, disagreeable, or even offensive to some members of the campus community.

To give a clearer picture of campus censorship, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) today announce our fourth annual list of the top 10 threats to free speech on campus.

While I explained in December why I think 2014 might be remembered as the “Year of the Heckler,” the most significant event for FIRE last year was the launch of our ambitious and large-scale Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project. In order to try to end the problem of campus speech codes once and for all, students and faculty members worked with the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine to file lawsuits against six colleges, including Ohio University, Iowa State University, Chicago State University, the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Citrus College in California, and, most recently, Western Michigan University.

We’re happy to report that some colleges, like the University of Hawaii at Hilo, were receptive to working with FIRE and our lawyers to swiftly and amicably fix their unconstitutional codes. But as you will see, some colleges, including Chicago State University, acted quite differently.

Note that not every “honoree” is a college or university, the list is presented in no particular order, and several honorees like Brandeis University and the Department of Education are repeat offenders.

Let us know if your school or alma mater should’ve been on the list, or if you have been censored on campus. FIRE is happy to work with schools to improve their speech codes. You can find more information on our website at

University of Iowa

Observers were quick to criticize art professor Serhat Tanyolacar’s installation of a statue he intended to be anti-racist: a collage of newspaper headlines and images covering instances of racial violence printed on a robe and hood reminiscent of that of the Ku Klux Klan. The University of Iowa (UI), however, responded not with a defense of Tanyolacar’s First Amendment rights but by censoring and publicly denouncing the artist for offending students. One public statement proclaimed that there was “no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays,” and UI President Sally Mason publicly apologized to students who felt “terrorized” by the artwork and for failing to provide a “respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment.” Despite heavy criticism from FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship, UI has shown remarkable indifference to Tanyolacar’s First Amendment rights, which most definitely protect the work it brazenly censored. If UI were serious about its legal and moral obligations to protect freedom of speech, it would apologize to Tanyolacar for failing in its duty to reject demands for censorship. And then it would apologize to its students for the exceedingly poor education on freedom of speech it has given them.

U.S. Department of Education

The Departments of Education and Justice mandated an unconstitutional speech code in May 2013 for all colleges receiving federal funding. The federal requirement came as a result of the agencies’ year-long joint investigation into the University of Montana’s practices and policies regarding sexual misconduct. The resolution of that investigation defined sexual harassment in a shockingly broad way, prohibiting “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct” (i.e., speech). No wonder Chris Rock said he wouldn’t play college campuses anymore! Worse, the resolution was labeled a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country,” suggesting that if schools didn’t adopt the new definition, they risked losing their federal funding.

Since the resolution, FIRE has witnessed one college after another adopt unconstitutionally overbroad sexual harassment policies in order to comply with the “blueprint.” For example, Pennsylvania State University adopted a new policy defining sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted, inappropriate, or unconsented to.” Did you ask someone on a date who turned you down? You may be guilty. The University of Connecticut and Georgia Southern University also enacted blueprint-compliant policies restricting constitutionally protected student expression. Until the Departments of Education and Justice back away from the blueprint and notify colleges across the country that they have done so (instead of just writing a letter to me about it), it will remain a major threat to free speech on virtually every campus in the nation.

Modesto Junior College (Modesto, Calif.)

With FIRE’s help, student Robert Van Tuinen sued Modesto Junior College (MJC) for violating his First Amendment rights when he was stopped from distributing copies of the Constitution—on Constitution Day. Last March, MJC settled the case for $50,000 and agreed to abolish MJC’s “free speech zone.” But MJC apparently hasn’t learned its lesson. Not only did MJC Chancellor Joan Smith publish an op-ed after the settlement with the unbelievable assertion that MJC did not prevent Van Tuinen from handing out Constitutions, but it has also gone after Van Tuinen’s supporters. William Holly, a professor who publicly stood up for Van Tuinen, has paid a high price for his integrity. For the first time in his career, he received a critical evaluation and has been forbidden from developing material for his classes, except for articles that have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal—a requirement that the American Association of University Professors has called “novel and strange.” Most recently, MJC informed Holly that he will no longer be able to teach ethics, as he has done for years. Holly is not alone. Leslie Beggs, an English instructor, had a job offer temporarily withdrawn when the dean was forbidden from hiring her because of her “scathing” op-ed supporting Van Tuinen in the fall of 2013. Retaliation against professors for exercising their First Amendment rights is ugly, vindictive, and likely illegal, and it makes MJC an easy choice for FIRE’s “Worst” list.

For more about the Modesto saga, check out this video:

Georgetown University

Georgetown University has been on FIRE’s radar for years. Since 2010, the university has refused to recognize the student group H*yas for Choice, contending that its mission conflicts with that of the university. Written policy, however, states that “all members of the Georgetown University academic community ... enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression,” including the “right to express points of view on the widest range of public and private concerns.” Matters only got worse in 2014. That January, H*yas for Choice was forced to relocate from where it had been tabling outside a campus event to a location off campus. Even though Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson conceded at the time that this shouldn’t have happened, it took until May for Georgetown to make revisions and clarifications to its speech policies, and even then students were only allowed to express themselves in certain designated areas of campus. Georgetown cemented its place on this list in September, when university police instructed H*yas for Choice that it could not table in precisely the location it was instructed to move to in January.

California State University, Fullerton

It’s hard to imagine a more bewildering and petty example of censorship than that which California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) demonstrated last year in dispensing with the rights of the Alpha Delta Pi (ADPi) sorority. On the basis of a “Taco Tuesday”-themed recruitment event at which many ADPi members wore sombreros and other Mexican garb, CSUF declared the sorority guilty of, among other absurd offenses, “[w]illful, material, and substantial disruption” of university activities and “[d]isorderly, lewd, indecent, or obscene conduct.” Adding further insult to its utterly meritless case, CSUF also coerced the sorority into complying with numerous sanctions, including that it “coordinate a mandatory workshop on cultural competencies and diversity.” What CSU Fullerton really could have used, however, is a mandatory workshop on the fundamentals of the First Amendment for its administrators.

Brandeis University

You could be forgiven for assuming at first blush that Brandeis University is a haven for free speech, given its namesake’s contribution to First Amendment law and the university’s recent acquisition of the personal papers of comedian and free speech hero Lenny Bruce. But beneath that façade is an environment that has been so hostile to free speech that Brandeis University’s reappearance on our list was a foregone conclusion. The school’s appearance also appropriately coincides with the retirement of Brandeis professor Donald Hindley, who was declared guilty of “racial harassment”—without due process—for explaining the origin of the term “wetbacks” in class while criticizing its use.

Last spring, Brandeis students (and faculty) headlined the “disinvitation season“ show, demanding that the administration rescind its commencement invitation to feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali due to her views on Islam—a demand that the Brandeis administration quickly agreed to, feigning (unconvincingly) ignorance of Hirsi Ali’s positions. The Brandeis administration also turned on one of its own, charging outspoken student Daniel Mael with “bullying, harassment, and religious discrimination” for doing nothing more than engaging in the marketplace of ideas and publicly challenging a classmate’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though Brandeis withdrew those charges after Mael’s attorneys made their presence known, the administration wasn’t through with him just yet. In December, Mael wrote an article calling attention to public, anti-police social media comments made by a fellow student, igniting a firestorm of controversy. A member of the student conduct board sent a mass email demanding that Mael be investigated and “held accountable”—and then immediately requested that Brandeis impose a no-contact order between himself and Mael. Not needing to be asked twice, Brandeis complied with the request, giving us yet another reason to question the school’s commitment to free expression and include it on this year’s “Worst” list.

Chicago State University

Two professors have sued Chicago State University (CSU) as part of FIRE’s Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project for attempting to censor their blog, CSU Faculty Voice, which is highly critical of CSU’s administration. CSU’s attempts to silence the two professors have been heavy-handed and contrived and include disciplinary charges for “cyber-bullying” based on a two-minute face-to-face conversation. That’s not all, however: Two students filed a lawsuit against CSU alleging that the university shut down the independent student newspaper, invalidated their election to the student government, and ultimately expelled one of them, all as part of a campaign to stop them from drawing attention to corruption within the administration. CSU’s former legal counsel received a $3-million award when he sued after CSU fired him for reporting misconduct by senior university officials. CSU president (and defendant) Wayne Watson recently announced that he will retire in 2016. Perhaps this signals that the period of rule by censorship and fear at CSU is coming to an end. In the meantime, however, CSU richly deserves its spot among the worst threats to campus free speech.

Marquette University

Marquette University’s chilling campaign to revoke the tenure of political science professor John McAdams due to writings on his private blog ensures its place on this year’s list. McAdams criticized a graduate instructor for what he viewed as her inappropriate suppression of certain viewpoints for in-class discussion (one student’s opposition to same-sex marriage in particular), and the instructor came in for heavy criticism. Marquette then suspended McAdams without due process and abruptly cancelled his classes for the next semester. It also publicly insinuated that McAdams violated its harassment policy and was a safety threat to the campus, despite a complete lack of proof for either charge. Marquette’s disregard of due process and its incredible denial that its campaign against McAdams’s tenure implicates free speech or academic freedom in any way should frighten anyone concerned about faculty rights. Indeed, if the university succeeds in removing McAdams, free speech and academic freedom will lose whatever meaning they had at Marquette.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Late last summer, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) sparked an intense, nationwide debate over civility and professors’ right to free speech when it rescinded its job offer to Steven Salaita, who had left a tenured faculty position at Virginia Tech to join UIUC’s American Indian Studies program. The university revoked Salaita’s offer over controversial anti-Israel statements made from his personal Twitter account. After the decision was made public, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise emailed the UIUC community and explained that Salaita was not hired because UIUC would not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” FIRE and other free speech advocates denounced UIUC’s treatment of Salaita, but the UIUC Board of Trustees refused to reconsider its decision. Salaita has since filed a federal lawsuit against the school’s Board of Trustees.

Kansas Board of Regents

The Kansas Board of Regents threatened faculty speech throughout the state university system in December 2013 when it enacted an overly broad policy on the “improper use of social media.” FIRE and other free speech advocates wrote to object to the policy’s authorization of punishment for expression deemed “contrary to the best interest of the university,” among other provisions. Kansas professors, too, urged the Board to rescind the policy in favor of unequivocal support for First Amendment rights. In May 2014, the Board revised the policy, but it kept much of the problematic language, including a restriction on speech that “impairs ... harmony among co-workers.” The chilling effect that this vague policy is likely to have on professors is exacerbated by the fact that it was apparently inspired by a controversial but undoubtedly protected post condemning the National Rifle Association that University of Kansas Professor David Guth made to his personal Twitter account in September 2013. Following the post, Guth was suspended from teaching, and now professors statewide may choose to self-censor rather than risk a similar fate.

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