Will any of the 2016 presidential candidates mention the many colleges that widely censor students’ free speech? Probably not. But at least a news analyst has followed the lead of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) in its essential crusade to bring an active First Amendment to college campuses.
An op-ed in last month’s Wall Street Journal says:
“Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously postulated that the test of a free society is the ability to express opinions in the town square without fear of reprisal.”
But dig this: “Most American colleges wouldn’t pass that test, according to a new report by … FIRE” (“Unfree Speech on Campus,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12).
The op-ed continues: “The foundation reports that 55 percent of the 437 colleges it surveyed (in 2014) maintain ‘severely restrictive’ policies that ‘clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.’ They include 61 private schools and 180 public colleges.
“Incredibly, this represents progress from FIRE’s survey seven years ago, when 75 percent of colleges maintained restrictive free speech codes.”
If contempt for the First Amendment in much of American higher learning is to continue for another generation or more, what quality of emerging public officials and voters will we have?
But to show the liberation of expressive Americanism that has taken place, The Wall Street Journal emphasizes:
“Perhaps the biggest breakthrough for First Amendment advocates (in 2014) was a Virginia law that bars ‘free-speech zones’ on public campuses. As FIRE explains, free-speech zones are a common tool that administrators use to restrict demonstrations to remote areas of campus.
“Colorado Mesa University limits free speech to ‘the concrete patio adjacent to the west door of the University Center.’”
Can you imagine James Madison’s or Patrick Henry’s reaction to hearing that?
FIRE’s extensive new report, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2015: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses” reveals the health of the First Amendment on campuses in one of the oldest states in the union:
“Virginia also took legislative action to protect students’ free speech rights in April 2014, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill into law effectively designating outdoor areas on the Commonwealth’s public college campuses as public forums.
“Under the law, Virginia’s public universities are prohibited from limiting student expression to tiny ‘free-speech zones’ or subjecting students’ expressive activities to unreasonable registration requirements” (thefire.org).
However, “FIRE continues to see an unacceptable number of universities punishing students and faculty members for constitutionally protected speech and expression.”
FIRE, which never gives up, then asks the inevitable question:
“What, then, can be done about the problem of censorship on campus? Public pressure is still perhaps the most powerful weapon against campus censorship, so it is critical that students and faculty understand and be willing to stand up for their rights when those rights are threatened.
“At public universities, which are bound by the First Amendment, litigation continues to be another highly successful way to eliminate speech codes.”
As I have previously reported, “(in 2014) FIRE launched its Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, a national effort to eliminate unconstitutional speech codes through targeted First Amendment lawsuits. …
“Lawsuits will be filed against public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes in each federal circuit.”
Then it gets even tougher and more costly for un-American colleges:
“After each victory by ruling or settlement, FIRE will target another school in the same circuit — sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued.”
What then follows is worth the attention of anyone to whom the right to free speech is the crucial definition of what defines us as Americans.
As the late Justice William Brennan once told me: “It is from the First Amendment that all our individual liberties flow.”
Especially when directed against a censoring government.
Therefore, as FIRE vitally urges: “Publicizing campus censorship in any way possible — whether at a demonstration, in the newspaper or even in court — is the best available response. To paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, sunlight really is the best of disinfectants.”
FIRE has been involved in protesting cancellations of speakers at a number of colleges — not by the administration, but by organizations of outside boycotters. In a recent Wall Street Journal story, Barry Fisher reports that “during the past academic year, protestors caused the cancellation of commencement addresses by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers University and International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde at Smith College” (“Free Speech’s Shrinking Circle of Friends,” Barry Fisher, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29).
Had I been a student at Rutgers University, I would have welcomed the chance to directly talk to Rice. I’d have asked why she, as part of the Bush administration, assured nations that prisoners would not be tortured after the CIA conducted “renditions,” kidnapping suspects from the streets of their countries to be interrogated in countries known for torturing prisoners.
Clearly, we know otherwise.
Meanwhile, I’ve previously reported on the cancellation of speakers at these schools as well as Brandeis University, where not only author Ayaan Hirsi Ali was canceled for her views, but one of its professors was harassed because of his alleged opinions.
Louis Brandeis was one of the most dedicated defenders of free speech in our history, and had he still been alive, he might have picketed the university named after him.
This continued desecration of the First Amendment reinforces my anger at the high proportion of public schools that no longer have mandated courses on American history. Nor is it likely they have classes on the dramatic history of what it takes to protect the First Amendment and much of the rest of the Constitution.
If this ignorance among many in future generations continues, who will Americans then be? What will their answers be to Duke Ellington’s song, “What Am I Here For?”
So again, before you vote, demand of the candidates where they stand on the deterioration of the First Amendment.
And, kids, ask your parents that question.