This year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) conducted an expansive study of just how pervasive and how onerous restrictions on speech are at America’s colleges and universities. What we found was not good news for free speech. Between September 2005 and September 2006, FIRE surveyed over 330 schools and found that an overwhelming majority of them explicitly prohibit speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive effort yet to quantify both the number of schools that significantly restrict students’ and faculty members’ speech and the severity of those restrictions.
Highlights from FIRE’s research include:
• Davidson College in North Carolina prohibits “comments or inquiries about dating,” “patronizing remarks,” “innuendoes,” and “dismissive comments.”
• At Jacksonville State University in Alabama, students can be punished if they “offend” anyone “on university owned or operated property.”
• At the University of Mississippi, “offensive language is not to be used” over the telephone.
How anyone could think these restrictions are a good idea is beyond me. Restricting speech is dumb, and even dumberer at a college. Someone may be saying something truly stupid, but by banning it, you add the fuel of martyrdom to the fires of stupidy. And if the purpose is to protect the listener, these things are even dumber on a University Campus than they would be elsewhere. University people are supposed to be 1) open to new ideas, and 2) a bit more rational than the public at large. One means they should not be so easily “offended” and two means they are perfectly capable of rejecting truly bad ideas; i.e. they do not need protection.
But if you are going to be a fascist, at least use meaningful and objective terms in the restrictions. Those three examples, for instance, mean “don’t say stuff that whoever happens to have enforcement authority dislikes.” The “rules” are so vague that no-one can know prior to enforcement whether a particular comment breaks the rules. Every speaker speaks at his peril. (Indeed, I may have just “offended” someone by using the masculine singular pronoun.) Hence, no speech is free. And this is on a University Campus! Give me a break.
JSU is not alone in Alabama. Auburn, Alabama, and Troy are among the 229 schools – out of the 334 surveyed – who get the lowest possible score. UAB and UAH beat them, but still get lousy scores. Only eight of the 334 had no serious speech restrictions.
The report does not include any statistics on enforcement of these restrictions. Most of them are so patently stupid that I can’t imagine anyone trying to enforce them. But if I’m wrong, I’d love to hear about it.