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Colleges are slowly taking away your First Amendment rights

Last modified: 7/6/2014 1:39:01 AM
Last Sept. 17 was a pretty bad day for the Constitution on our campuses.

Robert Van Tuinen of Modesto Junior College in California was prevented from passing out copies of the Constitution outside of his college’s tiny “free speech zone.”

Near Los Angeles, Citrus College student Vinny Sinapi-Riddle was threatened with removal from campus for the “offense” of collecting signatures for a petition against NSA domestic surveillance outside his college’s tiny free speech area. I mention Sept. 17 because that was Constitution Day.

These attempts to silence students are all in a day’s work for today’s college administrators. Thanks to the continuing menace of campus speech codes – rules restricting what students may say and where they may say it – these sorts of offenses happen every day on our nation’s college and university campuses. The only difference between the above cases and hundreds or thousands of others is that these students decided to stand up for their rights in court. That’s about to become a lot more common.

Modesto quickly settled, paying $50,000 and signing a binding agreement to dismantle its unconstitutional rules.

And on Tuesday, Sinapi-Riddle and plaintiffs at three other schools filed federal lawsuits asserting their rights as part of a major new litigation campaign from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I work) to finally end speech codes on public campuses. More cases are planned in the coming weeks and months.

The nature of the lawsuits shows the authoritarian bent of campuses today, where every sector of a student’s life is festooned with regulations. Two of Tuesday’s suits, at Ohio University and at Iowa State University, have to do with unconstitutional regulation of the content of student group T-shirts – one because of a suggestive joke, the other because it advocated marijuana legalization. If you are a student or parent worried about the fact that college costs are up 80 percent in the last 10 years and continue to rise, the fact that campuses are paying people to act as T-shirt police for their adult students offers little reassurance.

The remaining suit shows how free speech and academic freedom for faculty are threatened, as well.

Administrators at Chicago State University evidently are unable to accept the idea that people might criticize their alleged mismanagement online. So Chicago State has engaged in increasingly ridiculous stunts to try to silence the professors who author the CSU Faculty Voice blog, the most recent of which involved rushing to pass a “cyberbullying” policy it immediately used to target them.

Higher education cannot live up to its fantastic (and now, fantastically expensive) promise if this pervasive culture of censorship doesn’t change. The ugly truth is that far too many of our campuses are now places where making T-shirts, collecting petition signatures, blogging or distributing pamphlets can get you in trouble.

That must end, and the sooner the better. America must not see another generation of students robbed of their basic rights to protest and to dissent on campus.

(Robert Shibley, a civil liberties attorney, is senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)


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