We learn in grade school that freedom of speech is the hallmark of a free nation and the cornerstone of democracy. Yet the urge to censor seems almost irresistible, no matter who wields authority. As FIRE followers know all too well, public colleges and universities routinely restrict and punish constitutionally protected expression. In academia, where First Amendment freedoms are most precious, they are at serious risk. Nearly 60 percent of the 427 institutions that FIRE has surveyed maintain policies that clearly and substantially infringe upon freedom of speech.
John Adams, ever the pessimist, would be disappointed but not surprised. In 1817, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson:
When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.
The state of free speech on our nation’s campuses would also come as no surprise to Thomas Jefferson, who knew that we would “wander” from principles of free expression “in moments of error or of alarm[.]” Accordingly, he called on the American people to “hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”
Now, almost 200 years after Adams wrote of freedom of expression as a fantasy and Jefferson urged us not to lose our way, four college students and two professors have joined those who have decided to retrace the steps to liberty. On July 1, students and faculty from Citrus College, Chicago State University, Iowa State University, and Ohio University sued their institutions for violating their First Amendment rights, launching FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
The law is on their side. FIRE is proud to stand with them and support their efforts to reclaim America’s college campuses for the exploration of ideas and rigorous debate.
On this Independence Day, let us recommit ourselves to realizing Jefferson’s and Adams’s vision. Join us. It is time to stand up for speech.
Happy Independence Day from FIRE.