The Reality of College Censorship, Part 1: Censorpalooza

As those of you who read my blog yesterday know, Eugene invited me to be a guest contributor to The Volokh Conspiracy this week in order to discuss some of the issues raised in my recently released book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.

Yesterday, I described the negative impact that suppressing speech on campus has on our greater society. I also promised to give some shocking examples of censorship. So before we get into the legal issues that these cases raise, let’s take a moment to examine the state of free speech on campus.

Over the last decade, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) has fought against so many acts of censorship that we decided to put together a short video that highlights some of our most egregious and bizarre cases:

The video features:

  • Hayden Barnes, a student from Valdosta State University who was expelled for peacefully protesting the proposed construction of a parking garage.
  • Keith John Sampson, a student in Indiana found guilty of racial harassment for publicly reading a book.
  • The University of Delaware, a public college that developed a program of thought reform to serve as a “treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs.
  • Andre Massena, a student at Binghamton University (formerly SUNY-Binghamton) who faced suspension or expulsion for challenging the Department of Social Work.
  • KC Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and author of a book about the Duke Lacrosse case who was threatened with a possible investigation after publicly criticizing the School of Education for what he perceived to be indoctrination and viewpoint discrimination by members of the faculty.

These cases are just a few in the long list of rights violations that FIRE has battled. Last year, FIRE began drawing attention to this kind of brazen censorship by publishing an annual list of the “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” in The Huffington Post. The list serves as a public shaming of sorts, with the hope that students, alumni, and faculty at these colleges and universities will take action against these injustices. (Out of fairness, we also publish a list of the “Best Colleges for Free Speech.”)

Over the course of my 11-year career defending student and faculty rights, I have often had to explain to people that the problem with campus censorship is more than just theoretical — it places real pressure on students not to discuss and explore new ideas.

Indeed, a 2010 study conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities called “Engaging Diverse Viewpoints” found that out of the 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members surveyed, only 35.6 percent of the students — and only 18.5 percent of the faculty and staff — strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.” If you break down the numbers a bit further, the picture is even worse. Only around 30 percent of college seniors strongly agreed with the statement — a substantial drop from 40 percent of freshman, with each successive year less optimistic than the one before it. The longer they stay on campus, it appears, the less safe students feel about holding unpopular positions. Perhaps that explains why only a miserable 16.7 percent of college professors strongly agreed with the statement.

Colleges should be places where students and faculty are free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,” as Yale so eloquently promises in its college literature. Yet, as I explain in Unlearning Liberty, remarkable cases of censorship are taking place on today’s campuses, often at some of the most prominent schools in the nation.

Next post: Campus speech codes!

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