ACLU Executive Director Delivers Blistering Critique of Campus Speech Codes
November 20, 2012
by Joseph Cohn
In an important speech about civil liberties on university campuses delivered last week to an audience at Tufts University, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero defended free speech on university campuses. As covered by Josh Weiner of The Tufts Daily, the lecture, titled "Sticks and Stones: Freedom of Expression and Political Correction," addressed a wide variety of ways free speech is threatened by universities.
Romero said that his disdain for censorship, particularly on university campuses, stems from the fact that colleges and universities are places "where students foster many fresh ideas and where many landmark movements—including Occupy Wall Street, the anti-Vietnam War movement and much of the civil rights movement—originated before gaining momentum in the outside world." As Romero went on to argue, "That's why college life is so great. It's the incubator of those free ideas that will then germinate elsewhere."
As a gay Puerto Rican growing up in the Bronx, Romero explained that he endured numerous encounters with hateful speech as a young man. Romero stated that "the effects of harmful and degrading speech are real" and gave him "many sleepless nights." But Romero is nevertheless an opponent of speech codes, saying that he finds them ineffective and even counterproductive:
"I believe that there is no place for speech codes of any kind on a college campus," [Romero] said. "Restricting that speech doesn't make the hate go away ... You drive that hate and bigotry underground and it becomes harder and harder to control."
Romero's defense of free speech included a sharp critique of Tufts University's own shameful history of censorship. Torch readers may recall that in 2007, FIRE strongly criticized Tufts when the university found The Primary Source (TPS), a conservative student newspaper, guilty of harassment for publishing satirical pieces critical of Islam. Speaking of the incident, Romero stated, "Frankly, that's an unconstitutional denial of free speech ... once you decide some authority has the right to determine what is or is not legitimate speech, you've lost control of the system."
FIRE has long worked with ACLU chapters nationwide to protect free speech. Indeed, FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey A. Silverglate has served on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts for over three decades, including two terms as board president, and FIRE President Greg Lukianoff interned at the ACLU of Northern California. In fact, prior to joining FIRE, I served as the interim legal director at two ACLU affiliates, Nevada and Utah.
FIRE stands ready to work with the ACLU to challenge some of the nation's most egregious violations of free speech on campus—because, as Romero notes, "every part of a college campus should be a free speech zone." We couldn't agree more.