2011 A Year of Big Wins for FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program
December 23, 2011
by Azhar Majeed
FIRE celebrated several significant victories with our Individual Rights Education Program in 2011. This year saw a number of important university policy changes as well as other positive developments for individual rights on campus.
FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program (IREP) encompasses our efforts to educate students, faculty, and the public about the abuses of liberty taking place on college campuses across the nation, and to inform them about what they can do to fight back. Working with these constituencies—and in many cases, directly with college administrators themselves—IREP aims to achieve the necessary changes in university speech policies so that these policies are in line with their institutions’ free speech obligations. By making sure that university policymakers have a proper understanding of student and faculty rights, IREP proactively seeks to prevent free speech abuses before they take place, and to thus make our nation’s college campuses freer places for the unbridled exchange of ideas.
Chief among IREP’s successes this year was converting two major universities, Arizona State University and James Madison University, to a “green light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database, meaning that they do not currently maintain any policies that imperil free speech.
In February, we announced that Arizona State University (ASU) had joined the “green light” club by eliminating an "Advertising and Posting" policy for student organizations that previously provided that all campus postings "must make reasonable effort to avoid demeaning, sexual or discriminatory portrayal of individuals or groups." Following a letter from FIRE, which pointed out that student groups taking unpopular views on controversial issues could easily run afoul of the policy, ASU reformed the policy to state that campus postings "should be consistent with ASU's policy of discouraging demeaning, sexual or discriminatory portrayal of individuals or groups." (Emphasis added.) By making this policy aspirational in nature, ASU ensured that it had no more speech codes remaining on the books. As a university with a total enrollment of more than 60,000 students, ASU’s conversion to “green light” made it the largest school to go green to date. This was an important victory for FIRE. In fact, we touted the move in a feature in The Huffington Post in May, entitled “The Seven Best Colleges For Free Speech.” ASU rightfully belonged on that list, a fact that was not lost on others.
In September, we were pleased to announce that James Madison University (JMU) had become the latest “green light” institution, joining fellow Virginia schools The College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia. JMU joined these distinguished ranks by revising three different speech codes: a policy prohibiting any speech that might "provoke" a violent reaction, creating the possibility of an impermissible “heckler’s veto”; a policy requiring that peaceful assemblies on campus be registered 48 hours ahead of time, which restricted the right to hold impromptu vigils, protests, and demonstrations; and a policy that made campus postings subject to administrators' interpretation of "good taste" and prohibited any "mention or representation of drugs or alcoholic beverages." This last policy prohibited, for instance, posting fliers advertising a debate on the drinking age or marijuana legalization, despite the clearly protected status of such expression. By working with FIRE to reform each of these policies, JMU commendably achieved a clean slate in terms of its campus speech policies, and became the 15th school in our Spotlight databse to reach a “green light” rating. (To find the full list of “green light” institutions, simply use the “Advanced Search” function in Spotlight and search for all schools with a “green light” rating.) JMU’s policy reforms were well received on its campus, and deservedly so.
It should be noted that neither of these successes would have been possible without the diligence of student activists working in conjunction with FIRE. At ASU, student and Campus Freedom Network (CFN) member Ross Kenyon worked hard to make the policy change happen, writing a letter to the editor in The State Press, ASU’s campus paper, among other efforts. Indeed, back in January, Ross was nominated as a finalist for Students for Liberty’s (SFL’s) “Student of the Year” award for his activism. Likewise, JMU alumna and CFN member Kelly Jemison played a key role in getting her school to a “green light,” working with administrators to make the necessary policy changes and, even after she graduated, making sure that her student group, Madison Liberty, maintained the effort. Kelly shared her insights about the process with students attending our annual CFN conference last summer, and we can only hope that other students are inspired to repeat her efforts on their own campuses.
In addition to the “green light” victories, in 2011 IREP saw nearly two years’ worth of policy drafting and revisions come to fruition at California’s Southwestern College (SWC). SWC infamously suspended three faculty members in 2009 for their presence at a peaceful campus demonstration, pursuant to the school’s unique (shall we say) “free speech patio” policy. While we took SWC to task publicly for its handling of that case, FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties also worked with SWC over the intervening two years to draft a policy that would not restrict free speech so severely to a tiny area of campus. After many iterations, a new policy was finally approved in September. SWC’s policy now specifies that the exercise of free speech will be subject "only to the content-neutral regulations necessary to fulfill the mission and obligations of the College District," and that public areas of the campus may be used "without a reservation." Most notably, of course, the revisions mean that free speech at SWC will no longer be limited solely to one patio. While a few problems remain with the policy—which FIRE has noted, prompting us to keep an eye on SWC’s practices toward free speech—the policy reform was certainly an improvement for student and faculty rights at SWC.
Also in September, FIRE and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) convinced the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to shelve a proposed electronic communications policy that would have sharply restricted the expressive rights of students and faculty. The controversial policy would have banned, among other things, electronic communications that "interfere with the mission of the University," "uses that violate other existing University and campus policies,” and “political campaigning.” In a joint letter with the AAUP, we warned that these provisions not only restricted a wide swath of protected speech and afforded too much discretion to administrators charged with enforcing them, but that the restriction on “political campaigning” in particular hearkened back to the University of Illinois’ systemwide ban on much political speech and activity just a few short years ago in 2008. Thankfully, UIUC decided to shelve the proposed policy, and to revisit the matter in light of the concerns expressed by FIRE and the AAUP. As we enter the new year, we await a new (and hopefully much improved) draft of the policy.
Speaking of the new year, and of political speech and activity on campus, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of IREP’s projects with potentially much bearing for 2012: our “Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus 2012.” Released in November, our policy statement summarizes and clarifies the rights of university students and faculty members to engage in political speech and activity at both public and private campuses, and expresses the importance of allowing them to enjoy these rights in the marketplace of ideas. Given the confusion that often exists with respect to student and faculty political speech rights, we hope (as we did when releasing earlier versions of the policy statement in 2004 and 2008) that the statement will inform university administrators of the extent of these rights and clarify some of the questions that often linger in this area. Ultimately, we hope it will help to prevent the type of administrative abuses and restrictions of political activity we have seen too many times before.
As we move into 2012, FIRE hopes that our IREP work continues to make a difference on college and university campuses across the country!