On October 13–17, the Terrorism Awareness Project (TAP) is sponsoring its third "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" on campuses across America. As you might imagine, this event is no stranger to controversy: last October, Adam described at least two incidents where speakers brought in for the occasion were shouted down or silenced and students participating in related events were censored in various ways.
Unfortunately, this year it appears that TAP is calling for some censorship of its own, saying that it will advocate the defunding of campus chapters of the Muslim Student Association (MSA). In its guide for the week, a document called "Stop the Jihad on Campus," the group issues a call to "Defund the MSA," saying that "[m]arching under the banner of multiculturalism, the MSA has used its imposture as just another cultural/religious group to get funding from student government and university administrators for its hate campaign" and that "[t]he focus of Stop the Jihad on Campus Week will be to get all MSA chapters defunded." Another document, "Defunding the Muslim Student Association," further elaborates the group’s reasoning behind its call to defund MSA chapters, including "The MSA Foments Ethnic Hatred," "The MSA Attacks Free Speech," and "The MSA Lies About Its True Nature and Agenda."
FIRE has no way of determining whether TAP’s claims about the MSA are true, false, or somewhere in between, and for our purposes it doesn’t matter. However, we do know how to tell when someone is calling for a group to be punished for its expression—defunding a campus group is certainly punishment—and TAP appears to be doing just that. While any group is free to advocate for unconstitutional punishments for MSA chapters on campus, student governments (which are agents of the university and which therefore are bound by the First Amendment on public campuses and contractual promises of free speech on private ones) and administrators are not free to accommodate such requests. One of the responsibilities of an official decision-maker in a free society is to refrain from substituting one’s own judgment for that of the law. (In fairness to TAP, some of its arguments for defunding MSA chapters are unrelated to the legitimate exercise of free speech. FIRE takes no position on these arguments.)
Let’s take a look at two examples of expression for which TAP is calling on universities to defund MSA chapters. In the "Defunding the Muslim Student Association" document, TAP claims, among other things, that "[t]he University of Southern California chapter brazenly displays the Islamic hadith (‘holy teaching’) calling for the murder of all Jews on its website," and that "[t]he MSA national headquarters recently sent Islamic bigot Sheikh Khalid Yasin to Penn State, Ohio State, the University of Minnesota and other major campuses…Sheik Yasin has said that the U.S. government was behind 9/11; that homosexuals should be put to death; that AIDS was invented in U.S. government laboratories; and that Jews are ‘filth’ deserving of death."
While many people might strongly object to these opinions, there is no room under the First Amendment to punish a group simply for presenting or sponsoring expression that angers, offends, or even "incites hatred" of someone else. A fitting illustration of why this principle is so important comes from an October 2006 incident at San Francisco State University (SFSU). As part of an anti-terrorism rally, the SFSU College Republicans held an event during which they stepped on crudely drawn Hamas and Hezbollah flags. Because both flags contained the word "Allah" written on them in Arabic script, students complained that they were offended by the protest and persuaded the university to "investigate" the College Republicans for "incitement, creation of a hostile environment, and incivility."
FIRE came to the College Republicans’ aid, and after an absurd "investigation" and hearing, the university came to the conclusion that the students had not violated any rules. But it didn’t end there. SFSU’s pursuit of the students for their constitutionally protected expression was so egregious that the students brought a lawsuit against SFSU as part of FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project in an effort to overturn the speech restrictions under which they were punished. And they won big, getting a very favorable court ruling and ultimately a settlement that overturned unconstitutional speech restrictions not just at SFSU but across the entire 400,000-student California State University System—and awarded the College Republicans both damages and attorneys’ fees.
The fact is that neither the government nor college administrators (at public colleges or private colleges that claim to respect free expression) should have the power to arbitrarily determine what speech is acceptable on a college campus, or to block the discussion of certain viewpoints altogether. Simply put, that is a power that no person who cares about liberty should want the authorities to have. Once the power to censor is established, it can as easily be used against oneself or one’s friends as it can against one’s enemies. That is why the concept of the university as a "marketplace of ideas" is so important—all beliefs and opinions can compete against another on an equal basis, and those that are wrong or that are not useful will inevitably become unpopular in such an environment.
This concept underlies both the idea of the liberal university and the First Amendment itself. When it comes to cases like this, the law is clear: as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000), universities that use mandatory student fees to fund student groups (nearly all of them) may not make funding decisions about student groups based on their viewpoint. If, thanks to TAP’s advocacy, a MSA chapter faces defunding over its expression, FIRE will be there to help that chapter vindicate its free speech rights, as we have for so many other organizations in the last nine years.