Woods: Freedom Under FIRE
By Brendan Woods, Staff Columnist
Published on Thursday, January 6, 2011
You don’t have to be a founding father to appreciate the value of free speech. The First Amendment has been protecting blowhards and civil rights leaders alike since it was first written into the Constitution. Even in our divided country, the importance of free speech is so universally acknowledged that it would be downright un-American for somebody not to believe in it—although he or she could expect Americans to defend the right to think so.
Given that free speech is at the heart of the academic process, one would expect colleges and universities to be the most fervent defenders of the First Amendment. A recent report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, however, questions that assumption. FIRE reported that 67 percent of the nation’s universities have speech codes that restrict freedom of speech on campus. Five Ivy League schools received a “red light,” signifying substantial restrictions of students’ freedom of speech.
At Harvard Law School, administrators shut down a student comedy show that poked fun at professors, saying that the students’ parodies were violations of Harvard’s harassment policy. Columbia’s Teachers College evaluates its students based on how well they demonstrate a commitment to diversity and social justice, effectively grading them on their political and moral beliefs. Some of the violations FIRE cites are trivial—in 2009 a Yale dean nixed student plans to distribute t-shirts emblazoned with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that called Harvard men “sissies”—but others are more serious. There have been documented cases of discrimination against campus religious groups at Princeton and Brown, where certain campus ministries were de-recognized or denied rights given to secular student groups and other religious organizations.
FIRE’s website also cites examples of Ivies interfering with other First Amendment rights, including the freedom of association. In 2009 Cornell’s Student Assembly passed a so-called “anti-discrimination” clause that prohibited campus groups from discriminating on the basis of religion, race, sex or other categories in its requirements for leadership positions. In other words, at Cornell a Muslim group cannot require that its president be Muslim, nor can the Society of Women Engineers mandate that its leadership be female.
We are fortunate here in Hanover. Dartmouth was one of only twelve schools to receive a “green light” in the FIRE report. According to FIRE’s analysis, there are very few official restrictions on free speech at Dartmouth. But the safety of free speech extends beyond the formal positions of the administration. True freedom of speech requires taking the next step to where unpopular ideas are actually respected. On this measure I wouldn’t say Dartmouth scores quite as well.
Take several articles that appeared in these pages in the fall. Jordan Osserman ’11 wrote a controversial column about fraternity hazing (“Hazy Thinking,” Nov. 9)sparked an outrage that went beyond mere criticism of his ideas. Comments online and a response printed in The Dartmouth criticized Osserman not for the words he wrote, but for irrelevant personal traits and beliefs. Osserman was later kicked out of a fraternity angered by his column.
Roger Lott ’14 has also faced personal attacks from people who disagreed with some of his articles. Of course, Internet comment sections are never bastions of civility and commenters have First Amendment rights of their own. Still, one has to wonder whether vicious online comments act to discourage the free speech and open exchange of ideas that students, including columnist Brian Solomon ’11 (“Debate This,” Jan. 4), have so often called for.
Freedom of speech in the classroom is not a guarantee either. Conservatives love to bring up the image of liberal professors bullying the lone Republican in a class, and usually I think their concerns are overblown. However, I have had professors who dismiss respected conservative ideas and who use the word “republican” to elicit cheap laughs from students.
The FIRE report is an opportunity for the College to pat itself on the back. However, the report reminds us that freedom is more than a formal commitment. When an institution or individuals don’t want people to exercise their freedoms, it is questionable whether the freedom actually exists.