Free speech is a right many people think is always protected. But when looking a bit closer, people aren’t as free as they believe.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) mission to protect and sustain the individual rights at American colleges and universities from freedom of speech to religious liberty, according to their website.
FIRE works to protect and educate public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and the means to preserve them, according to their website.
Catherine Sevcenko, Associate Director of Litigation at FIRE, spoke at the “Know Your Rights Talk” at SUNY New Paltz on Thursday Nov. 20 in the Lecture Center about freedom of speech on campus.
“Know your rights and defend your rights because administrators are banking on that we don’t know the rights we’re given,” she said.
In her lecture, “Campus Advocacy and the First Amendment,” Sevcenko explained that students have the right to advocate for things such as ending drug regulations and having more or less government regulation. As students with first amendment rights, they have the ability to protest on campus.
Sevcenko said there are “limits to the constitution, but not what administrators want us to think.”
FIRE goes through student handbooks and university rules to look for what is really there. Sevcenko said when they looked over SUNY New Paltz, they were horrified.
FIRE gives universities ratings. Red light, yellow light and green light. Red light means at least one policy substantially restricts freedom of speech. SUNY New Paltz’s sexual harassment policy, which unwelcomes any conduct of a sexual nature, received a red light rating. Sevcenko explained that even just one dirty joke is technically violating this rule.
Time, place and manner restrictions is a way for administrators to “shut you up,” she said.
Sevcenko discussed other college campuses that have designated free speech zones. On the other hand, she said SUNY New Paltz has this “amazing” policy that says no faculty, staff, student or authorized visitor should be subjected to any limitations and can demonstrate wherever on campus.
Sevcenko’s view on technology in terms of freedom of speech has positives and negatives as well.
“Yes, social media has made FIRE’s job much more complex,” she said. “Colleges and universities now try to enforce speech codes against speech on Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, the fact that an opinion can spread so quickly through the Internet increases the chances that someone somewhere will be offended and complain. Of course, social media can also be a tremendous asset in defending free speech by exposing censorship.”
Sevcenko also discussed FIRE’s new Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
According to FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech website, by imposing a real cost for violating First Amendment rights, the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project intends to reset the incentives that currently push colleges towards censoring student and faculty speech.
This is done through lawsuits against public colleges maintaining unconstitutional speech codes in each federal circuit. After each victory by ruling or settlement, FIRE targets another school in the same circuit—sending a message that unless public colleges obey the law, they will be sued.
Sevcenko said, “Intellectual freedom compromised is intellectual freedom lost.”
More information about FIRE and the Stand Up For Speech Project can be found online at thefire.org and standupforspeech.com.