Experts Urge Congress to Protect Free Speech on Campus

June 3, 2015

A panel of activists condemned college campus speech regulations Tuesday during a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice hearing.

Led by Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the panel issued indictments of so-called "free speech zones" and campus harassment policies.

"Since I don’t generally issue trigger warnings I’m going to go ahead and show my first slide," Lukianoff said before displaying a political cartoon of police officers raping the Statue of Liberty. "I show this not to shock you but to establish that the case law regarding freedom of speech on campus is extraordinarily strong."

Lukianoff repeatedly criticized campus free speech zones—areas designated by a college or university as the only venue for certain types of political or controversial speech.

"We’ve been fighting these quarantines for almost our entire 15-year existence," Lukianoff said, displaying an image of Blinn University’s bus-stop sized free speech zone.

FIRE estimates that one in six universities have speech zones that are "laughably unconstitutional."

Attorney, author, and self-described "free-speech feminist" Wendy Kaminer joined Lukianoff in criticizing the current "culture of censorship."

"It’s virtually insane," Kaminer said. "These days when students talk about feeling safe they’re often talking about feeling protected from what one campus newspaper called being attacked by viewpoints."

Campus speech codes have serious ramifications, Kaminer said. Students used to this type of protective insulation will go on to become faculty administrators and even elected representatives.

"What can Congress do? It can monitor the Department of Education which seems out of control," Kaminer said. "Don’t react to bad speech by enacting bad laws that confuse offensive words with discriminatory action. Freedom of speech is freedom from government interference."

Lukianoff encouraged passing a "Campus Anti-Harassment Act" that would force the federal government to provide "a clear definition of harassment," referencing a 2007 case in which a student was found guilty of racial harassment for publicly reading the book Notre Dame vs. The Klan, which prominently features Ku Klux Klansmen on the cover.

He also suggested legislation that would "declare open areas on public campus as traditional public forums."

Not only are these speech codes unconstitutional in their First Amendment limitations, Lukianoff said, they also "fail in the court of public opinion."

"Free speech is supposed to protect unpopular speech," Kaminer said.

Published under: Congress , First Amendment