The Supreme Court has called America’s colleges and universities “one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life,” where “free speech and creative inquiry” are of the utmost importance. But can you exercise that right at your college or university without fear of censorship or punishment?
According to a new survey released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the answer is often a resounding “no.” More than 80% of students FIRE surveyed reported self-censoring their viewpoints at their colleges at least some of the time. Twenty-one percent said they censor themselves often. And while FIRE’s survey was limited to students, faculty face the same pressures to conform with the dominant ideology of the college campus.
It’s no surprise that people feel this way: the news is full of reports of students and faculty facing censorship and punishment simply for expressing dissenting views.
So what are your rights if you are a student or faculty member facing punishment for expressing your opinion? That depends on a number of factors. First, it matters whether you are at a public or a private university. Public universities are state entities that are legally bound to uphold the First Amendment rights of their students and faculty. Private institutions do not have to uphold the First Amendment; however, they may nonetheless be contractually bound by the promises of free speech they make to their students and faculty. And many private institutions routinely ignore these promises when addressing controversies over free speech on campus.
Even at a public university, your rights may vary depending on whether you are a student or a faculty member. Because faculty are employees, public universities may have greater authority to regulate what faculty can say in the context of performing their job duties than they have to regulate what students can say. This doesn’t mean, however, that faculty do not have free speech rights — they do, particularly when it comes to statements they make in the course of classroom teaching or when speaking as private citizens, for example on their personal social media pages.
If you are facing censorship on campus, you need someone who understands and will fight for your rights. The attorneys at Allen Harris know how challenging the climate for free speech is on today’s college campuses, and whether you are a student or a faculty member, we can help identify your legal rights and chart a path forward.