As the fall semester of 2008 begins its long draw to a close and we stand before our annual day of thanks, I cannot help but reflect on this year and this season and what it means for liberty on campus.
It is easy to be gloomy. Outside of the world of higher education, volatile markets, collapsing banks and rising unemployment are sending shivers down the spines of the whole nonprofit community—and the whole country. Meanwhile, despite being defeated time and time again in public battles with FIRE, universities have continued punishing students and faculty for their words, opinions, and beliefs.
If anything, the last twelve months have seen some of the worst violations of individual rights in FIRE’s near-decade of existence. We have seen a student employee found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book; another student expelled as a "clear and present danger" for a collage protesting a parking garage; students at a school in Texas and a school in Colorado told that they could not joke about guns, while other students in Texas were told they could not even symbolically protest in favor of gun rights; and a professor found guilty of racial harassment for using a racial slur in order to criticize that very same racial slur. Meanwhile, at Tufts University, the faculty and administration are seriously considering severely curtailing free speech rights, and three-quarters of colleges maintain speech codes that would never stand up to constitutional muster.
So what, in these uncertain and illiberal times, do we have to be thankful for?
I would say plenty. We should be thankful that since its founding nine years ago, FIRE has secured 137 public victories at 110 colleges and universities whose total enrollment exceeds 2.3 million students. FIRE is directly responsible for changing unconstitutional or repressive policies affecting more than 1.4 million students at nearly 70 of these universities. We should be thankful that, within the past year, both a federal district court in California and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals continued a two-decade-long unbroken chain of defeats for campus speech codes. Now administrators at public colleges that enforce speech codes or violate students’ free speech rights will be hard-pressed to argue that they deserve to be protected from personal liability through qualified immunity—a message that, once it gets through to campus administrators, could genuinely change the way they approach student rights. We should be thankful that now nearly one thousand students have joined FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network—a nearly fivefold jump from this time last year, and a powerful indicator that the desire for change on campus is strong. We should even be hopeful that the economic downturn will cause parents and students to be more critical of their universities, perhaps asking themselves: "Why should I pay $50,000 a year so universities can hire more administrators that propose and promote speech codes, that punish students for their opinions, that use coercive means to achieve dreary ideological conformity, and, in some cases, presume students guilty without even a modicum of due process?"
Most of all, I am thankful to our founders, our devoted, creative, principled, and industrious staff, and especially to our supporters, without whom FIRE’s success would simply not be possible. I have great hope for the final weeks of 2008, and even greater plans and expectations for 2009. Lastly, I am thankful for all you wonderful, loyal Torch readers. The more people know about the abuses taking place on our nation’s campuses the more likely they are to end.
Thank you for all your help and have a very happy Thanksgiving!