As Free Speech Is So Often Punished, How Worried Are You?

March 11, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on March 11, 2015.

I wonder what our founders would have thought of this:

“Last fall, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) mailed warning letters to more than 300 public colleges and universities that maintain unconstitutional speech codes … explaining that their institution could be sued if it continued to ignore legal obligations under the First Amendment” (“Students Sue Dixie State U. Over ‘Free Speech Zone,’ Censorship of Bush, Obama, Che Flyers,” the​fire​.org, March 4).

I continue to be concerned with increasing the protection of free speech — not only in colleges and universities — because I don’t want subsequent generations to become fearful of using this fundamental right of all Americans.

FIRE is the only organization ceaselessly working to keep free speech alive on campuses, from which many of our future voters, legislators and teachers will emerge.

Currently, the group is at work on a lawsuit filed by students at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, which you may never have heard of.

“The lawsuit alleges that Dixie State refused to approve promotional flyers produced by the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) student group that featured images negatively portraying Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.”


“Because school policy does not permit students to ‘disparage’ or ‘mock’ individuals.”

Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, rails against “the university’s ridiculous policies, which go so far as to forbid any poster in a residence hall that students or administrators claim creates an ‘uncomfortable’ environment.”

This in the land of the free and the home of the brave?

But, thankfully, with the assistance of FIRE, unyieldingly patriotic students like William Jergins are fighting for free speech at Dixie State. He declares:

“A true education demands that students be able to hear ideas different from their own. That is why respecting free speech on campus is so important and why we are standing up to get rid of Dixie State’s speech codes.

“By maintaining these codes, the Dixie State administration limits the ideas we hear, the thoughts we consider — and our learning experiences suffer because of it.”

So does the quality of the rest of their citizenship.

Meanwhile, FIRE took “a closer look at the previous year’s incidents of college censorship to determine the nation’s 10 worst abusers of student and faculty free speech rights” (“FIRE Announces 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech in 2014,” the​fire​.org, March 2).

Among these notorious defilers of the First Amendment are:

Brandeis University (already cited in previous columns of mine); California State University, Fullerton; Chicago State University; University of Illinois at Urbana‐​Champaign; University of Iowa; Marquette University; Modesto Junior College (Modesto, California).

There ought to be a special award of shame for a “college that stopped a student from distributing Constitutions on Constitution Day and then punished professors who came to his defense.”

That school was the aforementioned Modesto Junior College.

FIRE should not be alone in its invaluable public service of fact‐​finding and pursuing litigation to bring the First Amendment back to college campuses.

The media, in its various forms, should occasionally take a look at the​fire​.org and read the group’s press releases.

So, too, should those relatively few state and federal legislators familiar with the Constitution.

Now that more colleges and universities that ban free speech are becoming known, what action, if any, should the students’ parents — who believe tuition must include First Amendment rights — take?

How many of the 2016 candidates for president are likely to mention the forced disappearance of the First Amendment from college campuses?

I very much hope that FIRE starts to cover the First Amendment at high schools as well as middle and elementary schools and works to protect its existence at these institutions.

Some elementary students can think and read on their own. I know a few.

In the meantime, it’s wonderful to see students like those at Dixie State take to the courts to rescue the First Amendment. They’re becoming our educators.

About the Author