Arguing that free speech is suffering at colleges across the US, an advocacy group filed lawsuits against four universities, seeking to strengthen the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has
filed lawsuits against four schools – Iowa State University, Ohio
University, Chicago University and Citrus College in Glendora,
California – that it says disrupt the flow of free speech in a
number of ways, including the banning of particular T-shirts, for
example, or by refusing to permit certain speakers address the
student body on controversial issues.
According to the group’s estimate, about 60 percent of public universities and colleges have restrictions on rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The four lawsuits were filed partially in response to a rise in student protests against scheduled commencement speakers, some of whom canceled their appearances.
Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of State, for example, declined an invitation to speak at the Rutgers University commencement this year, following student protests against her appearance in connection with the hugely unpopular war in Iraq.
In an open letter to the president of the school, printed in the student paper The Daily Targum on April 30, "Rutgers Student Protestors" cited "destruction" in Iraq "at the hands of the Bush administration."
"These are clearly human rights issues. By inviting her to speak and awarding her an honorary degree, we are encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity," the letter said.
In another filing, Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle alleged that Citrus College, California had violated his First Amendment rights by limiting his petitioning actions to a small "free-speech zone" in the campus quad.
According to Sinapi-Riddle's lawsuit, campus authorities prevented him last fall from speaking to another student about his campaign against surveillance by the National Security Agency, saying he had wandered beyond the free-speech zone.
More "free speech restrictions at college campuses." http://t.co/xroVwTsZJE Maybe they need outside liberators for freedom and democracy
— Dr. Roy Schestowitz (@schestowitz) July 2, 2014
"It was shocking to me that there could be so much hostility about me talking to another student peacefully about government spying," Sinapi-Riddle told the Los Angeles Times. "My vision of college was to express what I think."
According to FIRE, many American institutions of higher learning have acquired arbitrary policies that give administrators and some student groups the power to remove all sorts of political debate and satire from the campus.
The lawsuits allege that both Iowa State University and Ohio University banned T-shirts deemed inappropriate to campus officials; Chicago State University attempted to block a faculty blog; and Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., set up a free-speech zone where a student could collect signatures for a petition.
The Philadelphia-based advocacy group said such an approach to free speech at colleges and universities is setting a dangerous precedent.
“We’re cultivating an intellectually unhealthy attitude that it is not OK, or even dangerous, to hear opinions that might make you uncomfortable,” Greg Lukianoff, the president of the group, said as quoted by the New York Times. “Universities have been much too shy in saying that there’s a great educational benefit from hearing dissent.
“You have a whole generation of people who think that they should be protected from anything they see as unwanted or disagreeable.”
Legal action is also being taken against Iowa State University and Ohio University, who are accused of banning certain T-shirts deemed offensive.
The group has met with success in the past in similar lawsuits, including one last year against Modesto Junior College in California, after faculty members told a student he was forbidden from passing out copies of the US Constitution outside the college’s “free-speech zone.”
In addition to removing the zone, the college settled the lawsuit for $50,000.