Is There Freedom of Speech in College?

Release Date
September 8, 2015


Civil Liberties Education Ethics Free Speech

Should you have freedom of speech on college campus?
Have you ever been told you need a permit or special permission to hold an event or demonstration on campus? Though we don’t think of them as government representatives the way we do police officers or legislators, administrators at taxpayer-funded universities are public officials bound by the first amendment.
When they censor speech on campus, they violate students’ rights. That’s why the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has started the Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (website): The mission of FIRE 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’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.
“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (article): In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
FIRE’s Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project (website): The litigation project aims to abolish campus speech codes nationwide.

This photo shows Mary Beth Tinker and Isaac Smith. Mary Beth sued her school district when she was sent home for wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War. That act of pushing back resulted in the landmark decision Tinker v Des Moines Independent School District. In which the Supreme Court stated neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate.
Isaac Smith sued Ohio University in July 2014 to force the University to reform a vague policy that forbade any act that degrades, demeans, or disgraces another student. He feared that broad policy would be used to punish him and other members of his group, Students Defending Students, for wearing an off color t-shirt with the slogan We Get You Off For Free.
The two of them are part of a noble tradition of people standing up to assert their right to express themselves. A tradition that is coming increasingly under fire on college and university campuses. That photograph captures the spirit of Fire’s Stand Up For Speech litigation project. Stand Up For Speech Exists to support any student or faculty member who wants to join Mary Beth Tinker, Isaac Smith, and countless others in the fight for free expression.
If your expressive rights have been violated on a college or university campus. And you want to fight back in court, Fire is waiting to help. My job is to sift through the numerous inquires Fire gets. And figure out which might be best resolved through litigation. Just is a word I hear a lot.
As in I just wanted to hand out flyers, but I was told I could only do so in a tiny free speech zone. Or I just wanted to collect signatures for a petition. Or I just wanted to recruit members for my student group. When students first contact us, they’re often apologetic.
As if they were the ones being unreasonable for objecting to being censored. But big principles often hide in small incidents. After all, Rosa Parks just wanted to keep a seat on the bus after a long day at work. Stand up for speech targets, public universities, because they are bound by the First Amendment.
Most people don’t think of universities as the government, like the police or legislature, or DMV. But university administrators are public officials and their schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. That means that the college administrator tells a student he or she needs special permission or a permit to speak.
It’s censorship, and the First Amendment exists to make sure that doesn’t happen. Stand Up For Speech works simply. If someone wants to challenge their school’s unconstitutional speech policies. And we agree that there’s a clear cut violation of the First Amendment rights. We refer the case to an outside law firm.
Then we work with the lawyers and the plaintiff to reform the policies. The project has a straightforward but ambitious goal. To change the risk calculation of university administrators. So that the costs of violating the First Amendment are greater than the so called benefits of keeping controversy off campus.
But Stand Up For Speech doesn’t work without plaintiffs. For instance, plaintiffs like Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, who sued Iowa State University for censoring their efforts to advocate for marijuana legalization. Including forbidding them to include an image of a cannabis leaf on a t-shirt design. In short, students who, to quote Aaron, believe in standing up for what is right, even when, especially when you are told to sit down.
Stand Up For Speech has sponsored ten lawsuits in a little over a year. And we will keep doing so until college and university administrators let rough and tumble intellectual debate take place without restriction. In other words, until they let the school fulfill its mission.