Who Wants College Censorship?
August 18, 2008
With last Thursday's passage of the Higher Education Act, complete with a sense of Congress resolution (see Section 104) that says that "an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas," and that "students should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against," I am once again reminded that there is virtually no constituency for college censorship outside of academia itself. According to FIRE's last annual speech codes report, no less than 75% of schools have speech codes that either do or would violate the First Amendment—and even more have speech codes that are questionable. Yet not only are these codes routinely struck down by the courts, but now Congress has passed a resolution advocating the exact opposite of the current situation for free expression on campus.
Why is the institutional attitude in Congress so different from that in academia? I think the answer is simple: unlike college administrators who would like to see all "offensive" expression purged from our campuses, the public has zero interest in seeing colleges and universities turned into islands of censorship within a sea of freedom. This truth is at the heart of FIRE's success—we could not win cases if the vast majority of Americans did not agree with our positions. And the public's attitude is reflected in the attitudes of our elected representatives. Congress' vote is another sign of the major disconnect that exists between academia and the public on the issue of free speech on campus. Those at our colleges and universities who care about preserving the influence of academia in our public discourse would be well advised to take note.