The $3,500 Question: Why Do Universities Pay Consultants to Advise Them on Speech Codes When FIRE Will Help for Free?

June 18, 2013

FIRE's Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies

Recently I went to the website of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, (“NCHERM“), which describes itself as “the umbrella for eight linked organizations which serve to advance holistic, proactive prevention and risk management within K-12 schools and on college and university campuses.” NCHERM has put out some white papers and other publications that I thought might be informative. During my browsing, I found NCHERM’s “Code of Conduct Revision Services,” which states the following:

UNDER FIRE? MAKE SURE YOUR CONDUCT CODE WON’T BE SEEN BY THE COURTS AS A SPEECH CODE: This policy review service is for colleges and universities that value free speech and want to ensure that their codes of conduct do not inadvertently prohibit speech protected by the first amendment. Today, colleges are being attacked and sued by interest groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Association of Scholars. It is possible to create reasonable expectations for campus civility without trampling on the rights of free speech. Let NCHERM help you strike a Constitutional and workable balance. This policy review service examines only those areas of your code that address speech and expressive conduct (such as discrimination codes, creeds, mission statements, freedom of speech statements, harassment provisions, and the like) to help you guarantee the constitutional rights of your students. You may be surprised at what we might find. A written report will detail problem areas and offer suggestions for alternative language and phraseology.  COST = $2,500 to $3,500 depending on extent of review.

This sounds like a useful service. That’s why FIRE provides it for free. Indeed, we have done exactly what NCHERM describes for several colleges already, and we would be very pleased to do it for as many more colleges as request it.

And that’s not all! FIRE provides a handbook (available in full on our website, as well as in print) free of charge specifically for university administrators seeking to revise their policies that impact student and faculty speech. FIRE’s Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies addresses common problems with university speech codes. We are always available to discuss specific issues with university administrators, faculty members, and students via email or phone. (Of course, we do not provide legal advice.) We also provide a form that anyone with a question about a policy can fill out; we provide answers to these inquiries promptly.

The cost to colleges and universities for these services? Nothing. Helping college administrators revise their policies to protect student and faculty rights is part of FIRE’s mission as a nonprofit organization. FIRE employs First Amendment attorneys with several decades of combined experience, and we are excited to help when administrators come to us proactively to address their policies. We’d certainly rather be doing that than issuing press releases about collegiate abuses of free speech.

FIRE has a solid track record of working productively and proactively with universities. This past January, FIRE completed its collaboration with Eastern Kentucky University to eliminate provisions in its student code that violated the First Amendment. After the changes were made, we were proud to award EKU “green light” status and to issue a national press release announcing this excellent development. Similarly, we have worked closely and cooperatively with administrators at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Virginia (to name just a few schools) to ensure that their policies accurately reflect their institutional commitments to freedom of expression on campus.

But don’t take our word for it. Check out the feature story from the April 2011 issue of Higher Education Legal Alert, providing an in-depth look at FIRE’s work with colleges and universities. Or read the kind words for FIRE from Eastern Kentucky University President Dr. Doug Whitlock from this past February. The administrators who work with FIRE will tell you that we’re knowledgeable, helpful, and very accessible.

We understand why some colleges and universities might view FIRE as an opponent. And we won’t stop calling out institutions when they violate student and faculty rights. However, we vastly prefer working collaboratively with college and university administrators to ensure that their school’s conduct code provides meaningful due process protections and respects First Amendment rights, so that the abuses we’re concerned about never take place. Our goal is to put ourselves out of business. Help us do that, colleges!

When it comes to evaluating speech codes, FIRE and NCHERM offer the same service. The difference is that FIRE will do it for free. Choose wisely.