Students have a new resource to help them know their rights on campus

, Jon Sanders, Leave a comment

RALEIGH — The new year has presented “academic freedom” with a grave new threat. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has published its Guide to Free Speech on Campus. The guide gives a shot in the arm, however, to academic freedom.

“Academic freedom,” of course, is what intolerant faculty and administrators governing many public universities call their efforts to stifle speech on campus. When they consigned free expression to only certain zones on campus, such as Texas Tech’s “gazebo,” that was “academic freedom.” When a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill instructor engaged in racial and sexual harassment and discrimination against a student in her class because she didn’t like what he said in a class discussion on (her topic) “Why do heterosexual men feel threatened by homosexuals,” faculty in her defense claim she deserved the “academic freedom” to have done so. When the University of Alabama decided the First Amendment wasn’t good enough and wrote a speech code so intrusive and subjective that it even prohibited “demeaning” speech, they did so in the name of “academic freedom.”

And it’s for sake of “academic freedom” that they write in anger against a movement that uses the same language as the American Association of University Professors in its original protection of academic freedom, as faculty members at N.C. State did against David Horowitz’s Student Bill of Rights. They complained about its “carefully chosen language” that “does not fully expose the agenda behind it” in the name of “academic freedom.” Why, it’s so cleverly written that it protects everybody’s rights! How insidious!

Likely they will bristle against FIRE’s Guide as well. Students who know their rights aren’t as easy to cow. FIRE is fond of quoting Justice Brandeis’ observation that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Light also vanquishes the darkness and makes it easier to see. So too does this pale cast of “academic freedom” evanesce when struck by the full glare of true freedom.

Consider this nugget from the Guide: “the First Amendment grants individuals and groups an enormous amount of autonomy and authority not only to define their own message, but to express it in creative and even in controversial ways.” That’s wormwood to “academic freedom.” It means, as the Guide explains, “those who seek to censor and indoctrinate the campus community can accomplish their goals only if individuals acquiesce, if they consent to censorship by their silence.”

The Guide to Free Speech on Campus was written by FIRE’s David A. French, Greg Lukianoff, and Harvey A. Silverglate. A noteworthy board of editors oversaw the project, including former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, and several noteworthy constitutional scholars — Vivian Berger, T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr., Roger Pilon, Jamin Raskin, and Paul McMasters.

In discussing free speech, the authors chart its history and the philosophy undergirding it. They tell why free speech is so important to individual liberty. And, crucially, they show students how to fight for their speech rights, rhetorically and, if necessary, legally – providing numerous examples from FIRE’s own cases.

The Guide tackles a range of speech issues students face on campus. A few of those include: speech codes against offensive or harassing speech, libel, compelled speech, compelled payment for speech with which one disagrees, free speech zones, religious expression, satire, controversial speech, obscenity, double standards, and unequal access.

FIRE has already produced three other guides for students. Next year, FIRE will publish its fifth, a Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus, to complete its series of student guides with the free-speech guide and its Guide to Due Process and Fair Procedure on Campus; Guide to Student Fees, Funding, and Legal Equality on Campus; and Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus. They can be ordered in paperback or downloaded for free at

A passage in the new guide’s preface hearkens back to John Milton’s call to “Let her [truth] and falsehood grapple, who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.” As the authors note, “Milton’s words — meant for the particular context of seventeenth-century England — rise above their historical setting. If any institution on earth should be ‘the mansion house of liberty,’ trusting in ‘a free and open encounter’ of truth and error, it should be higher education in a free society.”

That is a keen blow to “academic freedom,” and a welcome strike for academic freedom.

Jon Sanders is a policy analyst for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.This article is reprinted with the permission of the Pope Center.