The advent of social media and its growing popularity on college campuses means that students now have a much bigger platform to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech. However, as the number of ways the students are communicating with each other and the world has expanded, so has danger that this speech could be censored. That is why Will Creely, writing for pbs.org’s MediaShift blog, believes that it is more important than ever that a public information campaign be undertaken to make sure people understand that kind of protections are offered by the Constitution’s free speech provisions.
Most things shared on websites like Facebook and Twitter — not just by students, but by all users — are extremely banal. But some, like criticism of professors or government officials, or opinions on the country’s politics, are not. To preempt any attempts to muzzle such speech, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently updated their free Guide to Free Speech on Campus to keep both students and college administrators appraised on what does and does not constitute protected speech.
In our experience, the best way to combat campus censorship is to educate college students about their right to express themselves. With that in mind, our new Guide offers readers a thorough but accessible treatment of the contours of the right to free expression. We cover the different speech rights afforded K-12 and college students; exceptions to the First Amendment, such as true threats, obscenity, and incitement; the history of the First Amendment through the years; the difference between speech rights at public and private campuses; common types of restrictions on student speech; and more than 20 scenarios based on actual FIRE cases.
People might think that FIRE’s concerns about restricting student speech are overblown, but Creely counters with examples of the kind of systematic censorship FIRE sees perpetrated time and again on campuses. Just last year a student from Valdosa State University was expelled for protesting the proposed construction of a new parking garage. Hayden Barnes thought the $30 million dollars allocated to the project could be better spent on more environmentally responsible efforts like expanded access to public transportation.
For his efforts, which included a letter to the editor of the student paper, posting flyers around campus, and contacting administrators, Hayden earned the ire of the university’s president, who called Hayden in for a meeting and explained that Hayden had “embarrassed” him and that the parking facility was to be his “legacy.”
After a Barnes’ Facebook post criticizing the university president came to light, the president ordered Barnes dismissed from Valdosa. Subsequently, in a lawsuit, the president was found to be personally liable for infringing on Barnes’ right to due process.
Creely writes that FIRE’s archives are packed with similar examples of students’ criticisms of university policy becoming grounds for disciplinary action or outright dismissal or expulsion.
Further examples are numerous, and equally shocking: the student suspended for criticizing his college’s cozy relationship with a financial services provider on the school’s Facebook page; the student charged with ”disorderly conduct” for mocking his campus’ lack of scooter parking in an email to administrators; the students ordered to take down a “free speech wall” open to passersby by campus police because it contained profanity. Our case archives are depressingly crowded with more examples.