Is College Free Speech Under Fire?

Is College Free Speech Under Fire?
  • Opening Intro -

    Colleges and universities have long been considered bastions of liberty and free speech, but numerous incidents over the past several years seem to run counter to that thinking.


Supposedly, the 1960s ushered in freedoms never seen before on college campuses, the result of hard fought protests that had administrators rethink and rewrite their speech policies.

Free Speech Zones

Those speech policies have since eroded, something student journalists are discovering. These days college students may encounter “free speech zones” and changes in demonstration policies, unconstitutional limits to both their due process and free speech rights. That’s the contention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit educational foundation whose efforts are to preserve liberty on America’s college campuses.

“As college students settle into their fall semesters on campuses across the country, it is important that they—as well as their parents, grandparents, friends, and family—learn about common threats to basic rights in higher education,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “FIRE is proud to offer a wealth of resources explaining to students what rights they have and why those rights matter. And, as always, FIRE is here to help when students run afoul of campus censors.”

College Demonstration Policies

FIRE notes that college students seeking to freely express their opinions on campus might find themselves in violation of their school’s demonstration policies. This includes obtaining permission from the school to demonstrate, what can take days or weeks before a decision is rendered. Moreover, the college can also determine where students can speak, effectively creating unconstitutional “free speech zones” that a federal court ruled against in 2012.

Student groups are finding it difficult to receive official recognition from colleges, with that approval also coming with financial backing through funds contributed by all students. FIRE gave the example of a pro-life group at Johns Hopkins University that was denied approval because the university’s student government thought that the group would make people feel “uncomfortable.”

Journalists Under Attack

Aspiring journalists are finding restrictions as they seek to carry out the duties of the fourth estate. For example, a SUNY-Oswego journalism student was suspended from that university simply for interviewing a source. A student newspaper at the University of Memphis had its budget cut by 33 percent based solely on disapproval of its content. Instead of receiving $75,000 per year, The Daily Helmsman was awarded $50,000 for the 2012-13 academic year.

FIRE, however, has found one positive trend for the 2013-14 academic year: fewer unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes are in place now than at any time over the past seven years. Moreover, students enrolled at North Carolina colleges and universities have a right to attorney representation in most non-academic disciplinary proceedings.

“Students need to prepare themselves to defend their rights on campus,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “In the current academic climate, our colleges and universities can’t be trusted to automatically respect those rights. But with the help of concerned students, faculty, and alumni, FIRE can create a culture of freedom on campus.”

Available Resources

You can learn more about FIRE and the resources this organization offers by reviewing its Guides to Student Rights on Campus. Students are also invited to join the group’s Campus Freedom Network to help support free speech on their own campuses.


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Categories: Campus News