Virginians who think of colleges and universities as bastions of free inquiry and no-holds-barred arenas for intellectual engagement might be shocked at how inaccurate that picture can be. Some of the state’s colleges and universities have put in place policies that make a mockery of such notions.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has issued a report on the state of free speech on U.S. campuses. It makes for dispiriting reading. Fewer than half the institutions in America provide a robust defense of free expression. Virginia’s record is likewise mixed: Six of its public institutions – Christopher Newport, Longwood, Norfolk State, U.Va.’s college at Wise, VCU, and Virginia State -- received the group’s lowest rating. Only three — James Madison, William & Mary, and U.Va. — received the highest.
The colleges receiving poor marks impose a combination of speech codes and prior restraint. For instance: At Christopher Newport, students are forbidden to post anything that might be deemed “disrespectful.” And anyone “wishing to exercise their freedom of speech … must register with the Dean of Students at least 24 hours in advance.”
Believe it or not, that represents a considerable improvement. CNU used to insist that groups wanting to demonstrate ask permission 10 days in advance. The school changed the policy after it accidentally redounded to a Republican’s advantage: In September of 2012, GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan made a campaign stop at the school. Some students wanted to protest his appearance, including the Feminist Alliance and the Gay-Straight Union. They weren’t allowed to. And even if they had been, they might not have been noticed, because the school permitted demonstrations only on its Great Lawn, far from where Ryan was speaking.
Yet the school still has a long way to go: CNU’s policy on computer communications prohibits — among other things —– “unwarranted annoyance.” Given the hair-trigger sensitivities encouraged by the hothouse atmosphere of modern higher ed, that could cover a heck of a lot.
But don’t think CNU is an outlier. Many state universities impose equally egregious limits on freedom of expression. Take Longwood University, which designates the sole “area . . . for speeches and demonstrations” as “the Lankford Mall which is a primary crossway on the campus and will consist of the patio and the surrounding area located on the south side of the Student Union.” That’s it. And you still have to get permission first.
At Norfolk State, anyone who isn’t on a list of officially recognized campus groups must obtain written permission before handing out literature. Remember, Norfolk State is (like CNU and Longwood) a public institution — so the prohibition is just as unconstitutional as if the city of Norfolk itself had passed it.
Virginia Commonwealth University? It prohibits “humor and jokes about sex that denigrate women or men in general.” And last month, Virginia StateUniversity earned the dubious distinction of making FIRE’s “Speech Codes of the Year” list. Its code of conduct says no student may “offend” any member of the university community.
Private institutions do not face the constitutional issues public ones do, but some are no more enlightened. The University of Richmond has a system that enables witnesses of “bias incidents” to report them to a “Bias Response Team.” Bias incidents are those that “do not appear to constitute a crime or actionable discrimination” but which nevertheless “may,” among other things, “mock” individuals or groups. (You can find all the speech codes at www.thefire.org.)
Some might think policies like these cannot be taken seriously; surely they must be honored more in the breach than in the observance. In some cases that might be true. Yet FIRE’s case histories — and they are voluminous — make it abundantly clear that many colleges and universities not only take them seriously, but pursue them to sometimes ridiculous extremes. Consider some of the recent cases FIRE has highlighted: A student group at Dixie State rejected because its name included Greek letters. ModestoJunior College forbidding a student to distribute free copies of the Constitution — on Constitution Day. A pro-life group at Johns Hopkins denied recognition because it might make some students “uncomfortable.”
Virginia has seen similar episodes, albeit not so many in recent years. For that you can thank the eternal vigilance of groups such as FIRE. In the future, you also should thank those state lawmakers who have joined the cause. This year, two Republican delegates — Scott Lingamfelter and Rick Morris — have introduced legislation in Virginia’s General Assembly to restore a modicum of free speech at the state’s colleges and universities. Lingamfelter’s would do away with “free speech zones” that deny free speech outside the zones. Morris’ would grant students facing non-academic disciplinary charges the right to attorney representation. Based on FIRE’s findings, the measures are sorely needed.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.