5 Worst Freedom of Speech Violations on US College Campuses

On Tuesday, I shared the first half of my list of ten of the most common free speech violations which the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE ) encounters in its work defending campus expression. As I noted yesterday, the list is far from comprehensive, and the offenses listed are in no particular order. They do, however, give a sense of the depth and variety of ways free speech is threatened at our colleges and universities.

Here are five more of the most common violations against free speech on campus. Be sure to visit yesterday’s post for the first half of the list!

6. “Civility” Policies


Above: A common bumper sticker in  Howard County, Maryland.

Wait, what’s wrong with civility? Isn’t that something worth aspiring to?

Sure — but if your university forces such policies on students and then threatens them with discipline for failing to always be “polite,” however that is determined, you have a problem. I wrote here last year about Harvard’s attempt to impose a civility pledge on incoming freshmen, and its not-so-subtle shaming of those who would decline to sign.

Far more drastically, though, students at San Francisco State University were charged in 2007 with, among other things, “acts of incivility” for stomping on the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah during an anti-terrorism rally. What should have been an open-and-shut case of pure political protest dragged on for months before SFSU finally declined to punish the students. The students later sued, and won an injunction against civility policies across that California State University system.

To be clear: Universities are more than welcome to encourage civility. But when they mandate “civility” under threat of punishment, they’ve crossed the line and violated their students’ freedom of expression rights.

7. Punishment of Satire


Above: Fry from Futurama considers satire.

Intolerance of satire, as I’ve written before, is one of the starkest examples of how far respect for (and basic understanding of) free speech has fallen on campuses, with students facing accusations of “hate speech” and harassment simply for subverting 21st-century academia's many sacred cows — or just about anything else, for that matter.

Students at Colorado College were found guilty of “violence” for posting a parody flyer, a student at Johns Hopkins University had the book thrown at him over a satirical party invitation, and students at Bucknell University were permanently forbidden from having a satirical “affirmative action bake sale.”

Newspapers are frequent targets as well. Just this spring, a satirical student publication at Rutgers was investigated after publishing a spoof column sending up the pro-Israel columns of another student.

Such cases are both appalling and depressing. If we can’t even share a laugh about the major issues of the day, how will we get anything serious done?

8. Retaliation Against the Student Press


Above: Student newspapers are often targets.

Universities are known to retaliate against student newspapers for portraying them in an even slightly negative or embarrassing light.

They might, for one, suspiciously fire the newspaper’s advisor, as happened at East Carolina University. (The advisor sued and eventually settled for more than $30,000.)

Or they could undermine the paper’s autonomy in order to control its editorial content, as Quinnipiac University did in 2008, leading students to quit en masse and start a new publication. QU then threatened another organization with punishment if it even associated with the new paper in any way. (See also the troubling recent case involving the University of Georgia’s newspaper, the Red & Black.)

Or they could simply try to take their funding, as happened at the University of West Georgia and, more recently, at the University of Memphis, where newspapers saw their funding cut because student governments were unhappy with their content.

Unfortunately, as we’ll see later, individual students have also been known to take matters (literally) into their own hands when they can’t tolerate a paper’s exercise of its free press rights.

9. Free Speech Punished as “Threats”


Above: Free speech versus hate speech.

Few things irk me more than seeing true tragedies like the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University exploited to justify blatantly unconstitutional attacks on free speech.

The University of Wisconsin-Stout did just that with its repeated censorship of professor James Miller. The theater professor’s saga began last year when he posted this picture of actor Nathan Fillion (with a quote from his character as Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds), and was forced by police to take it down due to its mention of “killing.” Miller protested by posting this satirical poster — which got him reported to Stout’s “threat assessment team.”

That the university became a national laughingstock hardly solves the underlying problem, as more and more universities prosecute speech as threatening when it is clearly not.

Such behavior by universities is insulting enough; when they name drop Virginia Tech as justification, the insult is increased by an order of magnitude. The latest in the long line of offenders is Ohio’s Sinclair Community College. Currently defending itself against a First Amendment lawsuit, it invoked Virginia Tech in defending its policy banning handheld signs at campus events.

10. The Right “Not to be Offended”


Above: A free speech wall ripped down by disapproving students.

Perhaps most concerning about the many free speech violations FIRE encounters is just how many of them aren’t perpetrated by administrators, but by the students themselves. In part because they’ve been so badly misled and mis-educated about free speech principles, disrespect for the basic right of free speech is a very real and very troubling problem.

In its ugliest incarnation, the entitlement some students feel to suppress opinions they dislike takes the form of the “heckler’s veto,” with students taking such illiberal courses of action as shouting down speakers whose opinions they think don’t deserve to be heard, stealing and trashing newspapers with content they think doesn’t deserve to be read, or destroying the displays of student organizations they think don’t deserve a spot in the marketplace of ideas.

It certainly doesn’t help when a university bankrolls such mob censorship, as Washington State did with a student-led play. The phenomenon of “unlearning liberty” is so prevalent in modern campus life that FIRE’s President, Greg Lukianoff, has authored a book on it, out this October.

Students: put it on your reading lists.

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Peter Bonilla

Peter Bonilla is the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to defending the free speech and individual liberties of college students and faculty across the political and ideological spectrum. Peter worked as the literary manager of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company prior to joining FIRE in 2008. Peter writes in his spare time, and has received a fellowship in playwriting from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Had he known a little bit more about the Statue of Liberty, he would have made a nice sum of money on 'Jeopardy!' in 2009. His B.A., in Theater Arts and Economics, is from the University of Pennsylvania. An expatriate of Washington, DC, he lives in Philadelphia.

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