On July’s first blazing hot afternoon, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education announced at the National Press Club that it has a plan to fight to eliminate the unconstitutional speech codes embedded in our nation’s public colleges and universities.
“FIRE has decided that we need to change the incentive structure to one that favors freedom of speech on college campuses rather than the suppression of dissent,” Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, said in his speech.
A student at Modesto Junior College provided the spark for FIRE’s initiative in the fall of 2013 after college officials prohibited the distribution of copies of the Constitution during the nation’s Constitution Day. A similar incident happened at the University of Hawaii, Hilo.
FIRE quickly realized these weren’t isolated cases.
Three public universities and one community college are now being sued for unconstitutional speech codes. Chicago State University, Citrus College, Iowa State University, and Ohio University are among the four being pursued by FIRE’s litigation team.
But the battle has only begun. Out of 323 public colleges reviewed by FIRE, an astounding 58 percent were found to have unconstitutional speech codes. Only 4 percent were in good standing.
FIRE plans on filing suit against all public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes, in each federal circuit.
The organization defines speech codes as any regulation that punishes, forbids, severely regulates, or restricts large amounts of protected speech. Many public universities limit free speech by restricting it to “free speech zones” that are often distanced from heavily trafficked areas. At Citrus College, the free speech zone is just 1.37 percent of the 6.8 square mile campus.
“Unpopular speech is discouraged at every turn,” said Isaac Smith, a student plaintiff from OU whose organization, Students Defending Students, was asked to stop advertising ‘inappropriate’ promotional T-shirts. “Schools need to know that being open to differing viewpoints is exactly what college is for.”
In Iowa, university officials held NORML ISU, which is an activist organization for marijuana law reform, to a different standard than other student organizations because of the “controversial nature” of the reform they support.
Paul Gerlich and Erin Furleigh, who are the president and vice president of the NORML ISU chapter, were uncomfortable with the fact they’re now in a legal battle with growing national attention, but stand firm in their fight to protect freedom of speech.
“College campuses have and always should be a catalyst to new and progressive ideas,” Gerlich said. “But recently at ISU, we’ve been made to feel like voicing our opinions and beliefs is wrong when it’s absolutely not. The university slogan ‘Choose your Adventure at Iowa State’ will never be the same for us.”
Not all plaintiffs are students. In Chicago, a duo of professors is being pressured by CSU to shut down their blog the Faculty Voice, which is critical of the administration.
“It appears that only a court will be able to protect the rights of my campus community to express themselves without fear of retaliation,” said Phillip Beverly, an associate professor of political science at CSU. “It’s a tragedy that the valuable time of the federal courts would be consumed answering questions that have long since been answered.”
Beverly was referring to the message articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court four decades ago saying “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.”
FIRE is breaking out the brooms.