Colleges slowly taking away your First Amendment rights

  • Robert Shibley Special To The Washington Post
  • Saturday, July 5, 2014 10:31am
  • Opinion

PHILADELPHIA — Sept. 17 last year was a pretty bad day for the Constitution on our campuses. Robert Van Tuinen of Modesto Junior College in California was prevented from passing out copies of the Constitution outside of his college’s tiny “free speech zone.” Near Los Angeles, Citrus College student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle was threatened with removal from campus for the “offense” of collecting signatures for a petition against NSA domestic surveillance outside his college’s tiny free speech area. I mention Sept. 17 because that was Constitution Day.

These attempts to silence students are all in a day’s work for today’s college administrators. Thanks to the continuing menace of campus speech codes — rules restricting what students may say and where they may say it — these sorts of offenses happen every day on our nation’s college and university campuses. The only difference between the above cases and hundreds or thousands of others is that these students decided to stand up for their rights in court. That’s about to become a lot more common.

Modesto quickly settled, paying $50,000 and signing a binding agreement to dismantle its unconstitutional rules. And Tuesday, Sinapi-Riddle and plaintiffs at three other schools filed federal lawsuits asserting their rights as part of a major new litigation campaign from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) to finally end speech codes on public campuses. More cases are planned in the coming weeks and months.

The nature of the lawsuits shows the authoritarian bent of campuses today, where every sector of a student’s life is festooned with regulations. Two of Tuesday’s suits, at Ohio University and at Iowa State University, have to do with unconstitutional regulation of the content of student group T-shirts — one because of a suggestive joke, the other because it advocated marijuana legalization. If you are a student or parent worried about the fact that college costs are up 80 percent in the last 10 years and continue to rise, the fact that campuses are paying people to act as T-shirt police for their adult students offers little reassurance.

The remaining suit shows how free speech and academic freedom for faculty are threatened, as well. Administrators at Chicago State University evidently are unable to accept the idea that people might criticize their alleged mismanagement online. So Chicago State has engaged in increasingly ridiculous stunts to try to silence the professors who author the CSU Faculty Voice blog, the most recent of which involved rushing to pass a “cyberbullying” policy it immediately used to target them. This threatens not just free speech but also academic freedom, which to be meaningful must include the right of professors to speak out on matters of public concern — like the university’s well-publicizedproblems with finances and graduation rates.

Why is this happening? The main problem is incentives. Colleges fear those who demand censorship more than they fear those who demand they follow the Constitution and their own written policies. (Importantly, they also believe that the former group is more likely to sue than the latter.) And they’re under more pressure than ever to censor; with the explosion of social media, demanding that institutions punish or silence people when they say something “outrageous” has practically become our national pastime. The movement to include expression-chilling “trigger warnings” in curricula and this year’s disgraceful spate of commencement address controversies involving figures like Condoleezza Rice and IMF head Christine Lagarde only to push colleges further toward enforcing a stifling uniformity of opinion.

Six years ago, 79 percent of America’s largest and most prestigious public universities chilled student speech with laughably unconstitutional codes. Today, thanks to increased awareness of the problem, that number is down to 58 percent. That’s a real improvement, but it’s still far too high when the law requires that number to be 0 percent. Higher education cannot live up to its fantastic (and now, fantastically expensive) promise if this pervasive culture of censorship doesn’t change. The ugly truth is that far too many of our campuses are now places where making T-shirts, collecting petition signatures, blogging or distributing pamphlets can get you in trouble.

That must end, and the sooner the better. America must not see another generation of students robbed of their basic rights to protest and to dissent on campus.

Robert Shibley, a civil liberties attorney, is senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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