Friday, February 18, 2011

Are US Universities Censoring Speech?

In a video, Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) claimed that US colleges and universities are willfully suppressing freedom of speech on campuses.1 He states that 71% of such institutions do so. However, he gives no examples of such occurrences.

I do, however, think he is correct. However, I think he forgets to take into account the role of the state in this. Here I plan to show some ways in which the state influences what higher education institutions do.

Take for instance speech that can be constituted as “sexual harrassment,” or hateful or discriminatory speech or threats. An example of discriminatory speech would be speech targeted against those who are minorities in a society—such as gays and lesbians, or Sikhs, Jews and Muslims. Speech or actions can also be considered “threats” and may be criminally prosecutable. Universities that do not address matters of harrassment and discrimination break the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits such kinds of speech.2 Even if universities might enforce these laws to cover themselves from lawsuits, such cases of punishing “hate” speech end up protecting those in society who would otherwise be bullied or harrassed by others.

There can be debates over whether “hate” speech is always tempered by norms and rules on campuses. Certainly there is no agreement over what defines “hate speech” either. What if it is aimed towards a political party, politician, institution, group or person? Can a university bar say a KKK grand wizard from speaking on campus? A university might not knowingly invite groups who open up such controversy and potential for lawsuits, but they do often allow many to get by. What most universities end up doing is allowing people to speak, as well as, others to protest, in accordance with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Indeed, a more direct curtailment of free speech comes from the government. While the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the Executive Office has often cracked down on political activism. The Bush Administration introduced the Patriot Act, that allowed law enforcement to collect information on US citizens. Soon, the FBI was collecting information on US students in this manner, and perhaps even on faculty and staff, such as on books borrowed from university libraries.3 Some colleges and universities did not allow this, however.4 So, indeed universities and colleges do exercise discretion over such matters.

One clear violation might be the way some institutions hand over private student documents, such as health, employment histories and academic records of students to the state, if pressed to do so by law enforcement agencies. They do so openly for foreign students, who are without prosecution considered potential security threats to the US.

How this affects free speech in the end is unknown, also. With all the surveillance, some students probably self-censure to avoid the spotlight. On the flipside, some polls show very low interest in politics from students.


1Lukianoff, Greg. URL:

3ACLU. March 16, 2006. “ACLU letter to the Senate expressing strong opposition to the “Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006,” Authorizing Warrantless Surveillance by the National Security Agency.” See See also ACLU. Sept. 10, 2010. “FBI Improperly Spied on Activists, Says Justice Department Inspector General.” URL: . Also see “ACLU Calls on University of Washington to Curb Campus Surveillance.” URL:

4ACLU. Sept. 23, 2003. “San Rafael, CA Library Privacy Statement.” See URL: