In some ways it feels like the election was just last week, in other ways it seems like it was a million years ago, but this month marks one year since FIRE issued its statement on “partisan” campus speech.
As some of you may recall, there were several incidents in which speeches were canceled and expression was otherwise suppressed because it was considered too partisan. As we wrote in our statement:
It is deeply distressing and unfortunate that universities (and even students) are attempting to stifle political speech in the weeks before a Presidential election. If the First Amendment means anything at all, it means that speech must be free to influence the political process in this country. The founders of our nation considered the Bill of Rights essential because they recognized that true democracy would be impossible if one were not free to advocate political positions, whether they be mainstream, revolutionary, conservative, or anywhere else on the ideological spectrum. It is hardly an argument that speech should be censored because it might be used to change a person’s point of view so close to an upcoming election. Speech often serves its greatest societal function when it is used to change minds through reasoned debate and discussion. The concern of college administrators should not be the maintenance of an artificially-imposed “balance” but instead the protection of open discussion, expression, and candor.
[I]t is critical to remind administrators that students do not abandon their Constitutional rights when they enter the university gates, and that partisan political speech does not enjoy lesser constitutional protection than speech that advances cultural, educational, or religious purposes. To the contrary, political speech is considered the “core” rationale for the First Amendment, and nowhere is it more important that speech remain free than in the arena of political advocacy. So long as students are not materially disrupting the educational process, campus administrators have no valid reason for limiting or suppressing free speech activities that support a particular candidate or political party.
The statement is and continues to be a valuable tool for helping students, administrators and faculty understand an often misunderstood concept.
Meanwhile, I wonder if it may be time for another policy statement regarding the recent clashes over students’ protesting military recruiters on campus. In my work with FIRE, I am often reminded of that line from West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), “[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” “Partisan speech” is at the very essence of free speech and a citizen’s rights to protest the military is equally fundamental. While public campuses may certainly prevent students from actually disrupting the educational environment, it is essential that they remember they exist not to foster peace and quiet but to provide a forum for research, debate, and discussion of our society’s toughest issues.