Whether on campus or on Zoom, student rights remain in jeopardy after a busy summer for FIRE

September 1, 2020

As college leaders grappled with questions of whether and how to bring students back to campus this fall, FIRE faced an unprecedented number of students and faculty members coming to us for help. FIRE staffers reviewed over 600 potential rights violations since May 1. (For context, we reviewed just over 800 cases in all of 2018, and the fall semester has barely begun.)

As the new school year begins, we want to thank you for your support during this tumultuous summer. In case you’ve been socially distant from us the last few months, here’s a short rundown of how we’ve spent our days (and some of our nights!).

  • New Jersey’s Stockton University investigated a student for using a photo of President Trump as his Zoom background and posting on Facebook that he was “ready to fight to the death for our country and against those that want to take it down.” After FIRE got involved, the university dropped all six trumped-up charges, which could have led to suspension, a fine, community service, and a “decision-making workshop.”
  • Fordham University punished a student for holding a legally-obtained gun in an off-campus photo posted to Instagram memorializing the Tiananmen Square massacre. He’s banned from campus — and FIRE is defending his rights. For more, check out FIRE’s just-released conversation with Austin: an in-depth look at exactly what happened, and how he’s fighting back. (These are just two of many cases that have kept us busy.)
  • All summer, we defended the new Title IX regulations that finally bring due process to campus for those accused of sexual misconduct. With a coalition of other civil liberties groups, we filed briefs to defend the regulations against a series of lawsuits from the ACLU, the attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia, and others. We’ve fought hard to make sure students facing potential campus discipline are afforded basic rights like the presumption of innocence, impartial judges, and the right to face their accusers. Now, FIRE will defend those rights in federal court.
  • In June, Harvard University ended its four-year crusade to blacklist its own students and deny them scholarships and leadership positions if they joined single-gender, off-campus organizations. FIRE led the campaign against the misguided policy for years.
  • The University of Colorado Boulder, the state’s flagship university, earned our highest rating for free speech just last week. That’s now 55 “green light” schools nationwide for those keeping count.
  • FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff launched his own blog, The Eternally Radical Idea. So far he’s examined cancel culture and launched a multi-part series updating developments since the publication of his best-selling book, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Come for the First Amendment commentary, stay for the book, music, and other “nerd treat” recommendations!
  • We said goodbye to our incredible class of summer interns, but not before letting them reflect on their own free speech: Check out our video of the impressive intern class of 2020 and hear their thoughts on FIRE’s most non-traditional internship yet.
  • We also expanded our curriculum for high school educators, with new lessons on elections, social media censorship, and free speech during a pandemic
  • Calling all high schoolers: $20,000 in scholarship money is up for grabs in our 2020 essay contest! This year’s topic is on why free speech is a better idea than censorship. 
  • Students need to know their rights from day one. That’s why we’ve partnered with New York University’s First Amendment Watch to develop a freshman orientation program for universities to utilize when teaching incoming students about their free speech rights.
  • Many colleges have partnerships and satellite campuses in countries that do not protect free expression. In August, we called on universities to commit to free expression not only on their own campuses, but in all partnerships outside of the U.S.

As the school year revs up, we can’t thank you enough for your support in making all of this work possible. We know this year doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before, but we’re determined that come hell or high water — or yes, even global pandemic — nothing shakes the foundations of our defense of civil liberties on campus.