Are College Speech Codes Muzzling Your Voice?

Are College Speech Codes Muzzling Your Voice?
  • Opening Intro -

    Today's college students are finding that some campuses are far removed from the freedoms won during the 1960s.

    Definitely, a certain decorum is required in the classroom and around campus, to allow for faculty members to teach and for students to learn.

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Nonprofit organization seeks to help you uphold your civil rights.

But, dialogue shouldn’t be muzzled to avoid offending people at the expense of your civil liberties.

Subtly, some colleges and universities are effectively muzzling speech on campus, by enacting harassment and hate speech guidelines that are sending a chilling effect. Certainly, uncalled for language is not something most of us believe should be protected, but oftentimes language restriction rules are murky at best. And, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to free speech as well as for the redress of grievances.

Lighting the FIRE

There is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving the rights of college students and that organization is known as FIRE or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE’s mission is a simple, yet profound one, “… to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity.” By educating the public and protecting those that are unprotected, FIRE raises awareness of threats to civil liberties and educates people on how to preserve them.

FIRE takes a nonpolitical approach to protecting civil rights, defending people across the political spectrum. Its founders, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, launched FIRE in 1999 following publishing their 1998 book, “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.” That book was well-received and resulted in hundreds of inquiries from victims of “illiberal policies and double standards” that violated their civil rights.

University Speech Codes

Of chief concern to FIRE are the many “speech codes” that are in place at many schools. The organization defines these codes as “any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large.” These can include a harassment policy, a student conduct code or an Internet posting policy. Many schools seek to prohibit language that others might consider demeaning, sexist, annoying or degrading. Those restrictions, however, can cause a chilling effect and suppress free speech.

A visit to FIRE’s blog, The Torch, reveals the work that FIRE does to uphold free speech. In one case involving the former president of Valdosta State University in Georgia, a student had opposed the president, Ronald M. Zaccari, for violating his due process rights. The student, T. Hayden Barnes, peacefully protested Zaccari’s plan to spend $30 million of student fee money to build a pair of parking garages on campus. Barnes advocated for what he saw were environmentally-friendly alternatives, but Zaccari ordered that the student be “administratively withdrawn” from the school despite concerns raised by other administrators. FIRE submitted a “friend of the court” brief to the United States Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit which ruled against the former president.

Speech Code Ratings

FIRE attempts to rate public and private institutions across the state by assigning red, yellow or “not yet rated” ratings for each school. Those ratings are based on First Amendment restrictions FIRE identified and classifies accordingly. You can see how your school rates by visiting the home page of FIRE and plugging in your information.

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