Free-Speech Restrictions on Campuses Still a Problem, Nonprofit Says

March 27, 2019 Updated: March 27, 2019

A number of colleges in the United States are still employing policies that severely restrict freedom of speech for students and faculty from “across the ideological and political spectrum,” according to research from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization that focuses on civil liberties in the education sector.

Such censorship prompted President Donald Trump last week to sign an executive order with teeth, instructing colleges across the nation to protect free speech on their campuses—or risk losing federal research funding. One recent high-profile incident that prompted the move involved Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was assaulted at the University of California–Berkeley as he was recruiting for Turning Point USA.

Zach Greenberg, program officer for the Individual Rights Defense Program, told The Epoch Times in a phone interview that censorship is something that affects “almost every student” at college campuses.

“Almost every single political viewpoint you can imagine being expressed on college campuses has been the subject of censorship,” he said. “We have seen everything from art projects, to pro-life, to pro-choice viewpoints, to animal rights, to gun rights.”

The president on March 21 said colleges have become increasingly hostile to free speech and the First Amendment. “You see it all the time,” Trump said, referring to Williams’s assault.

Public colleges and universities are already legally bound to uphold the First Amendment. But despite that, FIRE’s 2019 spotlight report states that many campuses have ignored the law, often “through the implementation of speech codes: university policies that restrict expression that is protected under First Amendment standards.”

FIRE works with campuses to ensure that they are abiding by the Constitution and helps assist them to align their policies accordingly. But the group’s 2019 review of 466 colleges and universities shows that 28.5 percent of colleges have maintained policies that seriously infringe upon free speech.

“We have warned schools that these policies are unconstitutional, they are making their school subject to open lawsuits for propagating and enforcing unconstitutional policies,” Greenberg said.

According to Greenberg, the issue is that many of the restrictive policies on free speech use “language that is very broad.”

“Some policies, for example, would punish offensive emails or any action that may be disruptive, and that’s an issue because the language is so open to interpretation, it has the potential to punish any student for discussing hot button political issues,” he said.

“These policies really do chill student expression and make students less able to participate in academic discussions.”

FIRE recently compiled a list of 10 colleges the nonprofit believes to be the “worst colleges for free speech.”

Syracuse University (Syracuse, N.Y.)

Students at the Theta Tau engineering fraternity chapter were suspended last year for a private, satirical skit roasting their fellow members. A recording of it was leaked, prompting the college to say the students violated speech codes. The members tried to fight back with numerous lawsuits against the college.

Over the past decade, the college has “expelled an education student for his Facebook posts and investigated a law student for his satirical blog.”

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.)

Students passing out flyers critiquing the school’s administration were told to “vacate” the sidewalk by campus security officers because of “eminent domain,” a legal concept that had no relation to the situation.

The school also cited a policy that claimed students needed “prior authorization” before they “distribute materials on campus.” The policy doesn’t do that.

FIRE detailed how the school has a “long history” of censorship, including censoring critics of the Iraq War, and critics of the critics of the Iraq War. RPI refused to change its policies and declared a preference for a “controlled environment” over student expression.

Georgetown University Qatar (Doha, Qatar)

The school canceled a scheduled debate on the topic, “That major religions should portray God as a woman.”

Georgetown claimed that “the event was not sanctioned by the University and did not follow the appropriate policies for activity approval.” But a statement the next day suggested the content was to blame, FIRE said. The statement said the debate was a “risk to [the] safety and security of our community.”

The University of North Alabama (Florence, Ala.)

Students at the school’s newspaper legally requested personnel files to find out why the school’s vice president suddenly resigned and a professor was banned from campus.

The school denied their request, which led to a meeting with the student editors and the newspaper’s adviser, Scott Morris. Not long after, the school informed Morris that the qualifications of his adviser position would soon change—newspaper advisers need a doctoral degree, which Morris didn’t have.

UNA’s public administrators also added an unwritten vague policy, ordering faculty to have their interactions with the media “vetted” by the school.

Alabama A&M University (Huntsville, Ala.)

The college’s policy on harassment includes “negative stereotyping,” “[i]nsulting … comments or gestures,” and comments that are merely “related to an individual’s age, race, gender, color, religion, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation.”

FIRE said their definition was broader than the controlling Supreme Court standard, making constitutionally protected expression punishable.

Another policy prohibits students from “[h]arassing others” by sending “annoying” or “offensive” messages.

University of Wisconsin (Madison, Wisc.)

The school’s chancellor—who invited a sex educator to give a lecture on campus—received a formal letter of reprimand from the college’s president.

President Ray Cross praised the chancellor’s “commitment to freedom of expression and public discourse,” but said he needed to exercise “better judgment.” Cross also imposed financial consequences on the chancellor and added the reprimand to his personnel file.

Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.)

The school repeatedly censored its newspaper, the Liberty Champion. In one example, an article about unmarried pregnant students was cut before publication.

A school dean also reportedly told newspaper staff, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.”

Students with scholarships at the newspaper were required to sign an agreement conditioning their scholarships to their “full and continuous compliance” with newspaper rules.

University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kan.)

School officials moved a controversial art display of an American flag indoors after Kansas politicians demanded the school censor the display.

In 2014, the Kansas Board of Regents also approved “one of the most restrictive social media policies in the country” for faculty.

Plymouth State University (Plymouth, N.H.)

The school fired one professor and disciplined another for supporting a former student at a criminal sentencing hearing. One gave a letter of support and the other served as an expert witness.

The former PSU student pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student.

Dixie State University (St. George, Utah)

The school fired a music professor for discussing a colleague’s tenure bid. The faculty reportedly pushed the claims to remove the professor for political reasons.

Dixie State also fought with its student newspaper over access to public meetings and records.

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