FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus

April 2005

It’s difficult to imagine representatives from The Heritage Foundation, the ACLU, Harvard Law School, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute agreeing on even what day it is. But with FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has put together a crucial tome praised – and even edited – by Heritage’s Ed Meese, ACLU President Nadine Strossen, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, and ISI President Ken Cribb.

Believe it or not, when it comes to the plight of free speech on today’s campuses, two ex-Reagan Administration staffers are on precisely the same page as the liberal lawyer who likened the Clinton impeachment to “the forces of evil.” FIRE regularly defends students and professors whose rights have become an endangered species – none less than free speech, which explains why the just-published Guide to Free Speech on Campus is the flagship of FIRE’s series.

FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus is laid out very similarly to the others in FIRE’s series. It is essentially a primer on the legal and moral doctrines behind free speech – but that’s not all. The Guide also provides a historical narrative of free speech controversies throughout U.S. history, ending with the very recent outbreak of politically correct repression on contemporary campuses. And, perhaps most importantly, the Guide includes advice on how students should respond if their free speech rights come under fire from the PC Police.

Perhaps the most nefarious threat to individual rights that FIRE has exposed is the omnipresent campus phenomenon known as the speech code. According to the Guide, “FIRE defines a speech code as any campus regulation that punishes, forbids, heavily regulates, or restricts a substantial amount of protected speech” (emphasis in original). “Protected” in this case means protected by the First Amendment, the Constitution’s famous guarantor of free speech, which binds public universities since they are part of the state.

But FIRE’s Guide is not just for public schools – it also discusses private universities like my own. The three crack lawyers who wrote it – FIRE staffers David French and Greg Lukianoff and co-founder Harvey Silverglate – argue that if a private university publicly commits itself to free speech and then delivers censorship, it is committing fraud. This, of course, is precisely what most schools do: their course catalogs and admission materials trumpet academic freedom and the impartial pursuit of truth, but once the tuition dollars have arrived, their students instead receive only selective repression of unpopular viewpoints.

In today’s academy, the authors observe, the viewpoints targeted by censors are overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) conservative and Christian. Such behavior should be opposed out of principle – witness the stance taken by non-Christian liberals such as Silverglate, Strossen, and Dershowitz. But failing that, they note, self-interest ought to play a role. In American history, groups as disparate as abolitionists, Jeffersonians, and communists have all had their free speech rights infringed; censorship knows no ideological bounds. The Left has not always dominated universities, and there is no reason to believe it always will; eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way, and if those in power do not act now, they may be treated as they treat their opponents today.

In the Guide’s remarkable third section, French, Lukianoff, and Silverglate give real-life examples of what is happening in higher education. Just to pick a few: at Tufts University, a Collegiate Network conservative newspaper was charged with sexual harassment for publishing a cartoon some feminist activists found “offensive.” At the Wilmington campus of the University of North Carolina, columnist Mike Adams was charged with libel for civilly disagreeing with an email that was sent to him regarding the September 11 terrorist attacks. And at UNC - Chapel Hill, Christian groups were threatened with dissolution for daring to actually require that their members be Christians!

After reading the Guide’s exposition of the Supreme Court’s definition of free speech, readers will understand completely why all such restrictions are inappropriate. Speech does not become a crime simply because someone’s feelings are hurt; some of the most important ideas in history were “offensive” at one time or another, such as the now-accepted postulate that the planets revolve around the sun and not vice versa. As FIRE declares, echoing Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The best way to address ideas one finds offensive is with more speech, not by forcing them to hide beneath the surface where they are not subject to questioning.

Unfortunately, the children of the Sixties who run today’s so-called “institutions of higher learning” have forgotten this simple lesson. FIRE does us all a great service, both with this Guide and otherwise, by reminding school administrators of the crucial importance of the individual rights on which our liberty is based.

Interested readers can download FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus for free ( College students can order free copies (