When it comes to free speech on campus, the law couldn’t be any clearer: Public colleges and universities are fully bound to honor the First Amendment rights of their students. It’s not a close call. Courts have protected student expression from censorship in ruling after ruling, decade after decade, from the Supreme Court to the lower courts. In fact, the Supreme Court has identified the American college campus as an important “marketplace of ideas,” critical to the health of our democracy.
That’s why it’s so shocking that students nationwide are routinely silenced by administrators just for speaking their minds. Incredibly, the vast majority of public colleges maintain and enforce speech codes that brazenly violate the First Amendment. Simply put: the state of free speech on our campuses is a national scandal.
Just ask Robert Van Tuinen, a YAL member at California’s Modesto Junior College who was banned from handing out Constitutions to his fellow students on campus last September—on Constitution Day. Or ask Chris Morbitzer, a YAL member at the University of Cincinnati who was told that if his group dared to gather signatures for a state ballot initiative outside of his school’s tiny free speech zone, they’d face criminal trespassing charges.
Unfortunately, both Robert and Chris can tell you all about censorship on campus. But more importantly, they can tell you how YAL members like yourself can fight back—and win.
After Chris filed a First Amendment lawsuit challenging his school’s policy, a federal judge struck down the University of Cincinnati’s free speech zone. And just this month, Robert’s First Amendment lawsuit against Modesto Junior College resulted in a $50,000 settlement and policy reform.
Here’s how they did it.
First and foremost, Robert and Chris each knew that their civil liberties had been violated. After all, they’re YAL members; they know a thing or two about the Bill of Rights. So when they faced campus censorship, they knew they had been seriously wronged, and they recognized the importance of fighting back.
Second, both Robert and Chris contacted the most effective student rights organization in the country: the non-partisan, non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work as Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. FIRE has defended liberty on campus for 15 years, winning victory after victory on behalf of students and faculty. When we heard from Robert and Chris, we knew we had to act. We wrote both the University of Cincinnati and Modesto Junior College, letting them know that they were violating the First Amendment. But after both schools refused to correct their mistakes outside of court, we secured Robert and Chris pro bono assistance from highly skilled First Amendment attorneys, who filed suit.
Third—and this is important—Robert and Chris were each brave enough to stand on principle. Being censored is stressful, and the idea of fighting back can be intimidating. But Robert and Chris seized their chance to defend not only their free speech rights, but the rights of all students. By filing federal lawsuits, Robert and Chris forced their schools to answer for their unconstitutional policies in court. Given the clarity of the law, the colleges didn’t stand a chance—and their losses have now put other colleges and universities nationwide on notice.
I’m proud of the fact that FIRE wins case after case, and we work hard to keep it that way. But the truth is that free speech on campus depends on students like you. If you don’t stand up for your free speech rights, nobody else will. And because YAL members are exceptionally cognizant of the importance of free speech, we need you to defend the First Amendment rights of your fellow students.
So I write today to ask you to get involved in the fight for free speech on campus. If you or somebody you know has been censored on campus, we want to hear from you—write us at firstname.lastname@example.org today.
And even if you haven’t been stopped from handing out the Constitution or collecting signatures like Robert and Chris, we still want to hear from you. Check out your school’s speech codes on our website. If your campus earns a “red light” and you want to change that, write us at email@example.com today.
Working together, FIRE and YAL members can make sure that our nation’s campuses remain the marketplace of ideas they are intended to be. We look forward to hearing from you.Published in