As many of you have seen in the news recently, the right to free speech and assembly has been at the forefront of our national conversation. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been paying close attention to demonstrations at colleges across the country, particularly at Yale and the University of Missouri. FIRE staff members were at both institutions, observing what was happening and engaging with students.
FIRE celebrates the right of students to speak their mind. We work every day to protect that right because it is threatened on so many campuses across the country.
In Missouri, public universities are barred from maintaining tiny, remote “free speech zones” by the Campus Free Expression (CAFE) Act, a piece of legislation that FIRE worked hard to pass with bipartisan votes this past summer. Since the act was signed into law a few months ago, every student at Missouri public universities can now exercise their First Amendment rights without being restricted to unconstitutional free speech zones. We are happy to see that students at Missouri are putting the CAFE Act to good use.
We are especially pleased to see that students have evolved in their analysis of First Amendment issues on campus. At one point last week, the protests at Missouri were not inclusive to journalists—and remember, journalists and protestors are both protected by the First Amendment. We applaud the fact that students soon reversed course and recognized the rights of journalists and the vitally important role they play in our democracy.
At FIRE, we say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Change can occur most effectively when problems are brought into the public sphere, and the best way to challenge the status quo on your campus is by speaking your mind—whether by protest, counter-protest, or even a counter-counter-protest. The answer to speech you disagree with is always more speech, never censorship.
President Obama voiced a similar sentiment in an interview Sunday, encouraging students to critically engage one another: “Being a good citizen, being an activist, involves hearing the other side and making sure that you are engaging in a dialogue because that’s also how change happens…. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And, you know, you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.”
As a member of the FIRE Student Network, you are equipped with tools that can help untangle some of the questions you or your peers may have when evaluating how far freedom of speech extends.
One of the most common questions that has come up in recent weeks concerns “hate speech.” It’s important to remember that there is no legal or even agreed-upon definition of hate speech in the United States, and much of what people colloquially call “hate speech” is protected by the Constitution. Keep in mind that actual harassment or true threats are not constitutionally protected, and credible threats of violence (such as the anonymous shooting threats we’ve seen on social media or Yik Yak) require the attention of law enforcement.
FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus expands on this and other issues, and serves as a great resource for learning more about the First Amendment. And you can keep up with current free speech issues by following our blog, The Torch. Both of these resources can be used to educate your campus community about how to be a free speech advocate.
In addition to protesting, there are many ways to voice your concerns to peers and administrators in order to create positive change on campus. An op-ed in the student newspaper, a town hall meeting with campus leaders, or even something as simple as a conversation with another student can be a catalyst for change.
FIRE fights for your right to make your thoughts known and to engage with those who might disagree with you. Remember, dialogue ultimately allows us to become better thinkers, community members, and citizens.
FIRE’s mission is a narrow one. We are a non-partisan organization dedicated to defending student and faculty rights. We don’t have a position on the underlying causes of the protests at Yale or Mizzou. What matters to us is that students have the right and ability to express themselves. Advocating for free speech is not a liberal or conservative ideology. It’s an American right—and we’re here to help you exercise it.
The FSN Team