Liberty on Campus in 2008: FIRE’s Year in Review
December 30, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, December 30, 2008—While restrictions on freedom of speech and other First Amendment rights once again abounded on America's campuses in 2008, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) enlisted more students and faculty members than ever in its fight against campus censorship. Thanks to this groundswell of support, FIRE secured essential victories for freedom of speech and against limits on political activism—both on our nation's campuses and in courts of law.
"In 2008, FIRE made significant progress in protecting individual rights, fighting double standards, and turning back the tide of repression on campus," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "FIRE is heading into 2009 better equipped than ever to fight and win battles for civil liberties and fundamental fairness at America's colleges and universities."
FIRE won many victories for freedom of speech, religious liberty, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience throughout 2008, including key legal victories for student rights on campus. These successes included:
- Reversing the finding of racial harassment against a student-employee at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, whose "offense" consisted of reading a book in an employee break room about the 1924 defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in a street fight with Notre Dame students. The case has been made into a documentary.
- Reversing the expulsion of a student at Valdosta State University who had peacefully protested against new parking garages via Facebook.com, and persuading Valdosta State to eliminate its tiny, restrictive free speech zone. This case is the subject of a short film.
- Convincing the University of Delaware to revise its formerly unconstitutional distribution policy and to keep mandatory ideological reeducation out of its dormitories.
- Intervening to protect funding for student groups at Montclair State University and Central Washington University, where student governments threatened to de-fund the groups because of their constitutionally protected expression.
- Persuading Temple College in Texas to reverse its censorship of a professor for posting a quotation from Nietszche ("God is dead") on his office door.
- Fighting attempts by the Department of Social Work at Binghamton University (formerly SUNY-Binghamton) to expel a student for posting flyers criticizing a recent hiring decision by the department. FIRE succeeded in ending the farcical disciplinary hearing against student André Massena, but he now faces reported retaliation from the department that would fail him out of school.
Free speech on campus also gained a major legal victory when the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in DeJohn v. Temple University that Temple University's former speech code was unconstitutional. FIRE, which wrote an amicus brief in the case, now has alerted hundreds of schools that they maintain similar speech codes at their legal peril. Between this decision and the legal victory against the speech codes of the California State University System last year, practically no college administrator can claim ignorance of the law.
In addition, under legal pressure, Shippensburg University agreed for the second time to dismantle an unconstitutional speech code that was originally eliminated four years ago in a suit brought by FIRE Legal Network attorneys.
"It is time for public college and university administrators to heed the clear message that the courts have been sending for nearly twenty years now: free speech on campus is not optional," William Creeley, FIRE's Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, said.
FIRE also dramatically expanded its education programs to inform the public about violations of students' and faculty members' individual rights on campus by:
- Expanding the Campus Freedom Network to over 1,500 members nationwide;
- Issuing FIRE's third annual report on speech codes, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses, which reveals that nearly 75 percent of universities surveyed maintain policies prohibiting protected speech;
- Launching The Lantern: The Journal of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which includes a comprehensive account of the University of Delaware's now-abandoned thought reform program, a substantial article by Lukianoff on the persistence of campus speech codes, and a Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus explaining that such activity enjoys far greater legal protection than universities often claimed during the 2008 election season;
- Launching a multimedia project that includes dozens of podcasts and videos;
- Recognizing three college-bound seniors for award-winning essays among 1,500 entries to FIRE's "Freedom in Academia" High School Essay Contest.
FIRE also informs prospective students and their parents about threats to rights on campus through Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource, a database with information on speech codes at over 400 colleges and universities, and through the Red Alert list of campuses that represent the "worst of the worst" when it comes to liberty on campus. Michigan State University (MSU) recently joined Brandeis University, Colorado College, Johns Hopkins University, and Tufts University on this list of shame.
Heading into the New Year, FIRE will fight to achieve justice for MSU student leader Kara Spencer, who was found guilty of "spamming" after she e-mailed faculty about MSU policy changes. FIRE also will redouble its efforts to restore liberty at two colleges in Texas: Tarrant County College, where an empty gun holster protest was prohibited, and Lone Star College, where even the mention of the word "gun" on a flyer has been censored.
"Many administrators across the country still think they can bully students into submission," Creeley said. "But FIRE will continue to vigorously defend campus rights in 2009."
William Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 212-582-3191; email@example.com