“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (First Amendment to The United States Constitution.)
Did you know that two-thirds of public universities and private colleges in the United States have official policies that clearly violate the First Amendment? Some examples:
Grambling State University’s e-mail policy prohibits “the creation or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs, or national origin.” Grambling State University may monitor employees’ messages without prior notice, and any employee found to have violated its e-mail policy is subject to disciplinary action.(Grambling State University Email Use Policy, available online here.)
College of the Holy Cross prohibits “statements that cause emotional injury; and or, causing emotional injury through careless or reckless behavior.” (“Code of Student Conduct,” College of the Holy Cross Student Handbook and Planner, available here. Scroll down to page 35. The prohibition applies to “all forms of communication including, but not limited to, written or electronic media.”)
If you were surprised – as I was – to learn that two-thirds of public universities and private colleges in the United States have official policies that clearly violate the First Amendment, then maybe you aren’t as informed about your legal rights as you should be. For instance, do you know that public universities are legally bound to protect students’ rights to free speech?
Are you aware that while the guarantees of the First Amendment do not cover private colleges, most private universities make explicit and extensive promises of free speech to their students, as well as academic freedom for their staff?
Do you realize that speech codes on a public university campus which prevent any form of “offensive speech,” “hate speech” or “bias speech,” contravene the First Amendment?
Are you aware that harassment policies at public universities frequently fall foul of the First Amendment, because they fail to meet the legally determined definition of “harassment”?
Do you realize that public universities whose policies prohibit speech that supposedly “incites” bad behavior, or is “provocative,” are also breaking the law, if their definitions of “incitement” and “provocation” are more restrictive than those applied by the Supreme Court to society at large, in its rulings?
Are you aware that policies which restrict gatherings and demonstrations to small, out-of-the-way corners of campus also violate the First Amendment, and that the same goes for demands by public universities that organizations which sponsor controversial speakers should pay extra for campus security?
Some readers may be thinking, “It’s all very well to point this out, but what can we do about it?” Get in touch with FIRE, that’s what you can do.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is a nonprofit educational foundation based in Philadelphia. FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience – the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE protects the unprotected and educates the public about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.
FIRE encourages people to take action in cases that they feel passionately about. On its website, it provides students, faculty, ordinary citizens and lawyers with examples of ways they can help create change on college campuses.
FIRE not only investigates and publishes civil-liberties violations, but negotiates settlements and even helps plaintiffs take colleges to court. Since its incorporation as a nonprofit organization in 1999, FIRE has intervened successfully in defense of liberty-related issues on behalf of hundreds of students and faculty members at colleges and universities across the United States.
Every year, FIRE publishes a progress report. Its latest report – Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses – makes for compelling reading. Its discussion of the constitutional limits of free speech in the United States is extremely informative, and I was intrigued to learn that when it comes to First Amendment rights, people “are permitted to challenge a statute not [only] because their own rights of free expression are violated, but [also] because of a judicial prediction or assumption that the statute’s very existence may cause others not before the court to refrain from constitutionally protected speech or expression.” The report also includes a listing of universities whose policies violate the First Amendment in its Appendix B. Interestingly, Baylor University is one of 10 private colleges whose status is listed as “Not Rated,” because they state clearly and consistently that they hold a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech. Surprise, surprise!
The relevance of FIRE’s noble campaign for free speech to the Intelligent Design movement should be immediately apparent to readers. However, I should also point out that while FIRE endeavors to help defend students and professors whose rights have been violated, FIRE does not adjudicate genuine questions of academic merit, which sometimes arise during tenure reviews and grading of student work. FIRE also does not take cases that are from the staff of colleges or universities, involve elementary or high schools, are from outside the United States, or are submitted by phone or fax.
This is just an idea of mine, but perhaps it would be worthwhile setting up an organization similar to FIRE, which focuses on academic staff whose free speech rights have been violated. What do readers think?