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Fighting for Free Speech at Private Universities

It’s your first day as a student on the campus of your private university. You’re excited to discover what college has to offer. And you’re already about to make a big mistake.

During orientation, a number of topics are discussed: choosing the right courses, joining student organizations, and complying with community standards. At some point, you're handed a copy of your school’s Code of Conduct. You may choose to read it, perhaps even thoroughly. But, if you’re like most students, you’ll glance through it, skim the intricate details of your school’s policies, and unceremoniously toss it aside.

It’s important to recognize why you shouldn’t do this. Besides the fact that just about everything concerning your school’s rules is located in that pamphlet, a section addressing freedom of expression on campus can typically be found within those pages as well. Although it’s natural for some to assume a university’s freedom of expression policy aligns exactly with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, this is not a safe assumption to make—especially at private colleges.

As FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus notes:

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects individual freedoms from government interference. It does not, as a rule, protect individual freedoms from interference by private organizations, such as corporations or private universities.

Simply put, private universities generally have the right to restrict expression as they see fit, and often times do so within an adopted set of values or principles which students are expected to uphold. However, censoring and punishing speech goes against the concept of intellectual freedom and undermines the benefits of attending a liberal arts institution.

Though private universities largely are not bound by the First Amendment, there are several precautionary measures students can take to ensure their freedom of speech is protected on campus. The first of these is to educate yourself. If you’re a student who plans to attend a private university or are currently enrolled at one, read about your school’s free expression policies. These policies can usually be accessed via your school’s website or in brochures, like a student code of conduct. You can also utilize FIRE’s speech code database, which analyzes university policies to determine the extent to which student speech is regulated. Some universities have created limitations on speech through policies like overly broad harassment codes, “free speech zones,” and civility policies. By knowing and understanding your school’s free speech policy, you can fully exercise your rights as a student of the university.

Second, research your school’s history in order to determine whether it has a pattern of restricting speech on campus. Checking FIRE’s website for articles concerning free speech at your university is a great place to start. Additionally, examining newspapers (both in the student and popular media) for any available public remarks the university has made regarding freedom of expression will be useful. If there are cases in which the university has censored speech without citing a written policy, it may become clear that the university is not fully committed to freedom of expression. Determining whether your university has engaged in these practices will indicate its attitude towards free speech and the level of censorship you’re likely to encounter on campus. If you are a student who wants robust and open debate as part of your college experience, then it would be best to avoid schools with these policies and censorial tendencies.

Finally, hold your university accountable in regards to the promises that are advertised in its policies. Many private universities grant students robust free speech rights. These rights can range from free and open inquiry in all matters to the ability to debate conflicting ideas. For example, at my undergraduate institution, Princeton University, its policy as it relates to freedom of expression states:

[A]ll members of the University community [are guaranteed] the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, Princeton University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”

However, other school policies conflict with this overarching promise, inevitably hindering debate and discussion. For instance, as part of its protocols regarding peaceful dissent, protests, and demonstration, Princeton “reserves the right to determine the time, place, and manner of all such activities” and individuals must seek pre-approval to engage in these basic expressive acts. Although the university says this policy is in place to accommodate spaces needed for demonstrations rather than to restrict free speech or peaceable assembly, in practice it does impede upon freedom of expression.

By nature, many protests tend to be impromptu responses to unfolding events. By requiring a lengthy administrative approval process, the university makes it more likely that a protest fails to be timely and, in turn, is ineffective. Take, for example, the night of November 25, 2014, when St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American teenager. Just hours after the announcement, over 300 Princeton students staged a protest in response to the decision. This was one of the largest public protests at the university in recent years. If those students waited to get formal approval from the administration, it may not have occurred. Moreover, though no students were disciplined for failing to seek pre-approval for the demonstration, those students could have been penalized under university policies.

If you plan to attend a private university, don’t start the school year by overlooking important information. Being cognizant of your school’s freedom of expression policies will be important as you navigate through college. Remember that freedom of expression is invaluable and worth fighting for no matter how institutions may try to restrict it. Look for allies in the fight for free speech on your campus. What you may find is that there are many voices, across the political spectrum, who believe in standing up for speech.

Dashaya Foreman is a FIRE summer intern.

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