At the tenth anniversary dinner last night for FIRE—the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education—I asked Robert Sibley of the group if they were still winning 97% of their cases filed for student freedom. Greg Lukianoff, head of fire, gave me that statistic two or three years ago. “It may have dropped down a notch or two,” Sibley said, explaining that college administrators have adopted more complicated and devious (my word) tactics to ward off reform. In the old days, colleges and universities simply assumed they could violate student rights without explanation. Now the yen to censor is just as strong, but the major tactic is to tiptoe around the free speech issue by depicting the offending students and faculty as perpetrators of punishable acts. Students who stage satirical bake sales, for instance, making fun of affirmative action by charging different prices for cookies depending on the race or gender of the buyer, are shut down on various premises. Sometimes administrations rule that the pricing is unfair (the whole point of the satire) or that the students lacked a health permit for their sale. Another example: At East Georgia College a professor who protested a star-chamber sexual harassment policy, is being accused of sexual harassment for doing so. Before the rise of FIRE, colleges wouldn’t have bothered to obfuscate so clumsily.
The keynote speaker at the dinner, Nat Hentoff, looking a bit frail at 84, continued his lifelong habit of criticizing anyone, left or right, who refuses to live by the Constitution. He referred to our current president as “George W. Obama” for refusing to end his predecessor’s rendition program. Another brief sally brought a mini-protest from the floor. Hentoff referred caustically to a lamentable ACLU decision to gag its own board members rather than risk heated debate in public. Nadine Strossen, former head of the ACLU, rose from her seat, pronounced herself offended, and stalked out of the room. Hentoff ignored the disruption and later praised Strossen for her many defenses of free speech.
The main speaker was Eugene Volokh, who teaches constitutional law at UCLA and runs the elegant legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy. He said many students today assume they have a right not be offended, an assumption amplified by college speech codes that ban ridicule and hurting the feelings of anyone on campus. He urged the audience to keep the pressure on for student rights, quoting former Senator Everett Dirksen, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” Volokh was optimistic. Things are much better than they were in the 70’s, he said, and the law is on our side.
For an example of the preposterous campaigns some colleges conduct, and how FIRE responds, see the following post by KC Johnson, who contributes frequently to this site.