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Phi Beta Kappa Should Prove Its Commitment to Free Speech: Part 1

In November, FIRE wrote a nine-page letter to Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) to urge the prestigious honor society to hold its member institutions to higher standards of free speech and expression. A PBK spokesperson has claimed that “for 225 years we have endeavored to place our chapters only at those American institutions of higher education that share our commitment to freedom of inquiry.” But as FIRE’s letter pointed out, PBK offers membership to a host of institutions that have speech codes that are unconstitutional and have a chilling effect on campus speech.

One of the institutions that FIRE highlighted in the letter to PBK was Ohio State University, which has a speech code that tells students: “Do not joke about differences related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability, socioeconomic background, etc.” As FIRE stated:

This policy…infringes upon constitutionally protected speech, such as jokes about certain subjects, regardless of whether those jokes rise to the level of legally actionable harassment (i.e., whether they are both severe and pervasive as well as perceived by another as harassing).

Though PBK has not yet responded to us, secretary for the society John Churchill has said that while it is interested in freedom of inquiry and free expression, “it is not one of our functions to police and patrol the practices of institutions that have chapters.” The society apparently does not “undertake that kind of investigative activity.”

But PBK does not have to undertake that kind of investigative activity—FIRE has already done the work with Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource, a comprehensive rating system with which we have evaluated speech codes at institutions across the country.

As FIRE’s letter stated, PBK needs to realize that policies like the one at Ohio State University “pose a real and imminent threat to academic freedom…. We urge Phi Beta Kappa to stand behind its demonstrated commitment to academic freedom by insisting that its member institutions respect the free speech rights of their students and faculty.”

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