Commentary

Struggles to Protect Free Speech on Our College Campuses Continue

As I have often reported, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) continually fights in the courts and media to protect the free speech rights of students and faculty on college campuses — no matter their politics or religion (or absence of any).

However, much remains for FIRE to do to educate students on why and how they are Americans. Earlier this month, that defender of America’s most primal identity warned:

“As millions of college students arrive on campus this fall — many for the first time — few of them realize that nearly 59 percent of our nation’s colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict speech protected by the First Amendment.

“Too many students will realize that the rights they took for granted as Americans have been denied to them only after they face charges and disciplinary action for speaking their minds” (“Students Return to Campus Censorship, But Fight Back with FIRE,” thefire.org, Sept. 2).

A particularly startling example of the cult of censorship among many college administrators is a Sept. 5 email message to University of California-Berkeley students, faculty and staff from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

He began by noting that it is the 50th anniversary of the extraordinary Free Speech Movement by University of California students, which would have gladdened the hearts of James Madison, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

But then listen to how this university’s commander-in-chief defined free speech:

“We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility …

“Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously. This is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza (on campus), but also in our everyday interactions with each other — in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.”

In other words: Be polite, or shut up.

In his new, short, essential book, “Freedom From Speech” (Encounter Books), Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, tells, as we have just seen, “how higher education pioneered the idea that some students, professors, or administrators have the ‘right not to be offended.’

“This mythical right manifests itself in campus speech codes that ban ‘hurtful,’ ‘inconsiderate,’ or ‘offensive’ speech.”

It gets worse. Consider what else Lukianoff says is not allowed on too many campuses these days. You may find the following hard to believe, as I did at first:

“Constitution Day (which is honored yearly on Sept. 17) in 2013 was a particularly bad day for free speech on campus. At Modesto Junior College in California, student and decorated military veteran Robert Van Tuinen was told that he could not hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution to his fellow students.

“On the same day, at California’s Citrus College, student Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle was informed that he could not freely protest the National Security Agency (NSA) and its surveillance program on campus.

“Both (groups of) students were required to restrict their protests to tiny ‘free speech zones’ and had to get advance administrative permission before conducting them.

“Four months later, another group of students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo were told that they could not distribute copies of the Constitution to their schoolmates. (FIRE, with the help of attorneys from the national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, filed suit against all three colleges.)”

But just this month, the unintimidated FIRE proclaimed a swinging First Amendment victory in Plymouth, New Hampshire: “Plymouth State University (PSU) has eliminated all of its speech codes, earning the highest “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). After working with FIRE to ensure its policies comply with the First Amendment, PSU has become the 20th institution nationwide — and the second institution in just two months — to earn FIRE’s most favorable rating for free speech on campus” (“Plymouth State University Earns FIRE’s Highest Rating for Free Speech,” thefire.org, Sept. 12).

PSU’s vice president for enrollment management and student affairs tells FIRE: “Students are free to examine, exchange, and debate diverse ideas, both inside and outside of the classroom. We appreciate the diversity of our student backgrounds and have built a community where students are free to learn by engaging in ways that will transform their educational experience.”

Despite this liberating news from Plymouth State University, there is so much more to do on many campuses to unchain freedom of speech. That is why FIRE is now engaging a new project that will not only teach American students the answer to Duke Ellington’s song, “What Am I Here For?” but also help Americanize primary and secondary schools; local, state and federal legislatures; the presidency; and the courts.

Long ago, the president of Northeastern University in Boston threw me out of the editorship of the school paper for having offended too many people, including members of NU’s Board of Trustees.

I have ever since been indebted to him for showing me what I’m here for, starting with one of my first books, “The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America.”

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.