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How FIRE can help in the fight for academic freedom on campus


“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?

Hat-tip to Professor Jerry Coyne, whose recent post, American universities violate the First Amendment , alerted me to to the existence of FIRE. You can read more about FIRE here and here.

This is a great point. it shows how the idea that schools and the state are the same entity just because the state pays for the schools is a error of the motives of the founders of America. The state is not the schools. Thats the wrong idea here. Teaching God and Genesis for origins was expected by the very Protestant Yankees and southerners. The truth is not banned by any constitution. FIRE away. Robert Byers
Dr Torley: Very well said. Let us not forget that the doctrine and institutional culture of the college in one generation can easily become the doctrine and shaping framework of the community or civilisation as a whole in the next. Indeed, maybe that is the intention. GEM of TKI kairosfocus
Hi GilDodgen and markf, Personally I'm glad that FIRE has such a politically diverse board of advisers. If you're going to uphold free speech for one group of people, then you have to uphold free speech for everyone. In my own experience, however, people who oppose religion, free-market capitalism and/or the nuclear family rarely have trouble getting themselves heard. I don't think there's necessarily a common thread behind all these academic biases, except for the fact that they all negate the value of something which many people deem to be important, and even fundamental to human well-being. I believe that universities have a duty to question everything. However, in order to question a point of view, you have to understand it first. Ideally, you should strive to understand an idea better than its own proponents, before you criticize it. It is my experience that many academics who attack theism, Intelligent Design, the notion of an immaterial soul, the importance of the family, the right to life of an unborn child, and/or the notion that people can govern themselves without bureaucrats doing it for them, are rarely able to make a coherent case for the point of view they so fiercely criticize. To my mind, this suggests that they suffer from a cognitive blind spot. vjtorley
#1 To quote Jerry Coyne: "If you think they’re a bunch of right-wing crackpots determined to get rid of “political correctness” on campus, think again: they’ve defended both conservatives and liberals, ranging from PETA to Christian organizations, and their board of advisers has recently included Wendy Kaminer, Roy Innes, Nat Hentoff, and John Searle. You can think of it as an ACLU for colleges. markf
Especially on university campuses, and to a great extent in our culture at large, we are experiencing an encroaching dictatorship of the secular left. They preach as the highest values, tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity, but practice the exact opposite. They call themselves "free thinkers" while attempting to impose thought control on others. I'm a former academically indoctrinated leftist atheist, but am now a free-thinking conservative Christian and scientist who follows the evidence where it leads, and have no desire to impose my beliefs on anyone else. The irony is that these thought-control fanatics consider people like me to be a danger, when, in fact, they are the ones whom we should fear. GilDodgen

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