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Professor to Colleges: Summon the Courage to Defend the Constitution

By April 16, 2015

This week, Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, authored an essay for Inside Higher Ed in which he criticizes colleges that have punished students for racist comments.

As FIRE has reported, the University of Oklahoma (OU) summarily expelled two members of the now-disbanded chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in March for their participation in a racist chant referring to the lynching of black Americans. Just weeks later, the University of South Carolina (USC) suspended a student who wrote “niggers” on a classroom whiteboard as part of a list of “reasons why USC WiFi blows.” In both cases, the students were subject to discipline based on the viewpoints they expressed—unconstitutional results at public institutions of higher education.

At USC, the writing in question seems to have come in for punishment by violating the university’s Carolinian Creed, which prohibits “racist and uncivil rhetoric.”

Zimmerman argues, though, that USC’s focus wasn’t quite right:

[I]n the United States, there’s another creed that’s supposed to take precedence over all the others: the Constitution. And the university—not the offending student—violated it.

“[U]niversity leaders,” he writes, “deserve censure, too, for their craven disregard of the First Amendment.”

We’re with Zimmerman. Public universities like OU and USC can take steps to educate students against bigotry—but they can’t turn their backs on the Constitution.

It is easy to defend the First Amendment and the right to free speech when considering speech that makes us all feel good inside, but that is not the speech we have to worry about protecting. Zimmerman notes that it takes courage, especially on a college campus, to defend the First Amendment and free speech when it involves words or expressions that make us cringe.

Hopefully, more universities take note of the principles highlighted in Zimmerman’s essay and develop the courage to defend the constitution and stand up for free speech.

Schools: University of South Carolina Columbia University of Oklahoma