PHILADELPHIA, September 2, 2014—As millions of college students arrive on campus this fall—many for the first time—few of them realize that nearly 59 percent of our nation’s colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict speech protected by the First Amendment. Too many students will realize that the rights they took for granted as Americans have been denied to them only after they face charges and disciplinary action for speaking their minds. But this year, campus censorship faces a new deterrent: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, which aims to finally bring an end to unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes.
This fall, six students return to campus not just as students but as First Amendment plaintiffs after suing their institutions in federal court with FIRE’s help. Among them are two students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who filed suit because they were not allowed to hand out copies of the Constitution in a public area and were told that they should protest National Security Agency surveillance in a remote and swampy “free speech zone.” Another student sued Citrus College in California because an administrator threatened to have him removed from campus for seeking a signature for a petition outside the college’s free speech zone.
At Iowa State University, students are fighting back because the school used its logo policies to restrict their student organization’s ability to advocate for marijuana legalization. And Ohio University administrators will be forced to defend or abandon their vague and overbroad prohibition on “demeaning” speech as well as their efforts to browbeat a student group out of wearing T-shirts with a mildly risqué play on words.
These lawsuits are just part of FIRE’s ambitious Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. The Project aims to bring multiple lawsuits challenging speech codes in every federal circuit to send the message that public universities may no longer ignore the First Amendment with impunity.
FIRE’s recent cases show that this message is sorely needed. For example, the University of Oregon (UO) charged a female student with five conduct violations, including “harassment,” for jokingly shouting “I hit it first” out a dorm window at a couple below. (One day after FIRE made the case public, UO decided not to pursue the charges.) Students at Northern Illinois University reportedly arrived on campus only to find a new web filter had censored their Internet usage in the name of “security.” And Amherst College students had better hope that none of their social activities are deemed “fraternity- or sorority-like,” or they can be kicked out of school for exercising basic associational rights.
Thankfully, students can fight back. FIRE provides the resources that students need to protect their fundamental rights. FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus is free to everyone in e-book form, and bound copies are free to students or available on Amazon.com. FIRE also offers Guides on a number of other student rights. For additional support from FIRE, students can join FIRE’s Student Network—and they’ll receive a free T-shirt. FIRE staff members are also available to come speak on campus, and they do so dozens of times a year. (FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s new book Freedom From Speech is also available now for preorder from Amazon, and offers a more philosophical look at free speech issues both on and off campus.)
Unfortunately, student rights are often abused because incoming students don’t understand their basic free speech and due process protections. That’s why FIRE teamed up with the Bill of Rights Institute to prepare a lesson plan for high school civics, government, or history classes: “The College Bill of Rights” (PDF). This one-day lesson gives students an invaluable overview of how the First Amendment will apply to them on their college campuses and is perfect for a Constitution Day (September 17) curriculum at any high school. If you are a teacher, please take a look at this free lesson plan—and if you are a parent or grandparent, download it and make sure it gets in the hands of your favorite student’s teacher!
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org