Commentary

Powerful Force Teaching Students the Very Essence of Being Americans

During the continuously explosive debates about education reform and teacher evaluation, no mention has been made by the media in all its forms of a persistently effective national teaching force in enabling college students to know how to become self-governing Americans for the rest of their lives.

Nor have I previously identified the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as not only a foremost civil rights and civil liberties leader, but also as an educational leader in truly Americanizing American colleges — an education American students almost never get in their classes.

I have, of course, often cited another such tirelessly liberating educational force, John Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute. However, I focus now on the future impact of FIRE being primarily responsible for the first ever U.S. state, Virginia, to bring full college students’ First Amendment rights to all outdoor areas of university campuses there instead of tiny “free speech zones.”

Nor is FIRE finished helping the Bill of Rights take root in more colleges as it works to guarantee all such students the right to a lawyer when charged with offenses — as it has already successfully accomplished in North Carolina.

Instrumental in the first two victories, as well as the current Virginia campaign, is Joe Cohn, FIRE’s Legislative and Policy Director.

To get a full sense of how Cohn operates, here he is on another James Madison-style expedition, this time to my home state of Massachusetts, as he writes legislator Sen. Michael Moore and Rep. Tom Sannicandro in support of a bill to provide “university students facing serious, non-academic disciplinary charges the right to be represented by an attorney.”

Here is what Joe Cohn starkly told those legislators about what is happening to students there charged with “theft, harassment, assault, drug and weapons possession, stalking and rape.” Until this bill is passed, Cohn said, students “will continue to be forced to represent themselves — alone — against experienced and professionally trained deans, administrators and university attorneys in proceedings that fail to guarantee core components of the rights of due process …

“The stakes,” he continues, “are very, very high; the result of these hearings dramatically change the course of these students’ lives … Some institutions may allow a lawyer to attend the hearing, but prohibit them from participating in the proceedings. Others ban attorneys altogether. The universities, on the other hand, are free to send as many attorneys as they wish to prosecute the student.”

Yet this is the state where Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party and the Committees of Correspondence continually alerted the 13 colonies under British rule to the bottomless abuses of the colonists’ rights, thereby becoming, as Thomas Jefferson was to say, a precipitating cause of the American Revolution!

In his March 28 letter to the Massachusetts legislators, Joe Cohn confronted them with this prickly challenge:

“The law (providing students with the rights to a lawyer) has been in effect in North Carolina since last July. To date, there have been no reports and there is no evidence that providing students with the right to the assistance of lawyers or the advisers of their choice in these hearings has disrupted or prevented any institutions from conducting hearings.

“Simply put, the sky has not fallen, as the bill’s opponents loudly predicted.”

Nor have the Constitution’s First and Fifth Amendment rights continued to fall in that state.

Cohn could not resist this further poke in the ribs of the Massachusetts legislators: “It is simply unreasonable to expect 18-year-old and 19-year-old students acting alone to competently answer serious charges posed by deans and administrators with decades of professional experience acting as judge, jury and executioner for campus crimes.

“FIRE notes that this imbalance is particularly exacerbated for students with disadvantaged backgrounds. While wealthier students who have lawyers or other professionals for parents may confidently face these tribunals, first-generation students or those who rely on substantial financial aid have the added burden of knowing their livelihoods — and often the dreams of their families — are on the line.

“For these students, having legal representation during the few hours of a hearing could make a difference that lasts for decades.”

The Massachusetts bill requiring a lawyer is, as of this writing, still pending, and the Virginia lawyer bill has been tabled for the year. But FIRE will not let up on either state.

Meanwhile, around the nation, many parents are paying rising college tuition fees without a thought about whether their sons and daughters will be guaranteed due process rights, if needed, while they’re there.

And hey, you 2016 presidential candidates, what’s your position on providing college students with campus-wide free speech and also due process to defend themselves across this sweet land of liberty? Will voters and the media be asking them? How about you?

I will continue to report on how FIRE’s national Student Network is more actively than ever connecting with students all over, “making it easier,” it tells them, “to look up your school’s speech codes and submit a request for FIRE’s help — whatever that help might be.”

The Sons and Daughters of Liberty have returned in full force.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.