Once upon a time, American colleges and universities prided themselves on being a zone of free expression, open to ideas, in a society that often censored speech and pressured citizens into conformism. How things have changed! Now college and university campuses are among the least free parts of our society, with speech codes and censorship enforced by armies of administrators.
Fortunately there is an organization fighting this state of affairs: FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE has represented students against administrators bent on censorship and has catalogued the restrictions on speech currently in force in 58 percent of American colleges and universities. Many of the students it has represented are conservatives, like the Modesto Junior College student barred from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, but others are leftists: FIRE backs free speech from any quarter -- just like colleges and universities used to pride themselves on doing.
On Monday, FIRE went one step further, when president Greg Lukianoff announced the organization is launching a Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project by bringing lawsuits against four public colleges and universities challenging their speech codes. The lawsuits are targeting Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., Iowa State University, Chicago State University and Ohio University. At reason.com, Robby Soave has a good account of Lukianoff's press conference. Excerpt:
“During a Q and A session, Lukianoff was asked why he thought now was the time for such a litigation effort. He explained that the massive expansion of college bureaucracy poses a grave threat to students' rights. There are now more administrators on campuses than ever before — far more bureaucrats than teachers, in fact — which has led to a ‘mindless application of ridiculous rules,’ he said.”
It’s an interesting question — one that I hope will puzzle future historians — why college and university administrators feel such a strong urge to shut down free speech. But there’s no question that they seem bent on doing so, and those of us who cherish freedom of expression should be grateful to FIRE for fighting the good fight.