This will be my last post guest blogging on Concurring Opinions; I am so grateful for the experience.
Almost everyone agrees that university campuses should be bastions of free speech. Fervent disagreement, however, exists just below the surface of that statement. Depending on how values are prioritized, individuals may differ on when speech becomes harassment, when speech becomes punishable conduct, and when speech is too controversial, extreme, or offensive to be permitted in the classroom. What are your first (and then your second, and third) thoughts when you hear about a UC Santa Barbara professor who emailed his students graphic photographs comparing Holocaust victims to Palestinians in Gaza? Or, what is your reaction to students in a Yale fraternity, as part of an initiation, chanting “No means yes, yes means anal” while marching around campus. Do your views change when you hear about Georgetown University denying official recognition to a pro-choice student organization because of its Catholic and Jesuit tradition?
Prior to joining Penn State Law as a Visiting Assistant Professor, I worked at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that spoke out against the three universities that sought to punish the UCSB professor and the Yale fraternity, and refused recognition to the H*yas for Choice. (The asterisk is because Georgetown will not permit the group to attach the term Hoyas to its name.) While at FIRE, I, a committed feminist, personally argued that the Yale fraternity’s chants did not constitute actionable harassment. Although Yale, like Georgetown, is a private university, both promise their students free speech rights.
I was constantly disheartened that FIRE was labeled as partisan, because it indicates how many people connect the speech they seek to protect to their own political beliefs and assume that others do the same. When FIRE staffers write columns on The Huffington Post, the organization is accused of being liberal. In most other circumstances, FIRE is dismissed as a conservative mouthpiece, because much of the speech that is censored on campuses is viewed as more harmonious with conservative causes.