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President Barack Obama’s 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame elicited numerous reactions regarding the president’s pro-abortion rights stance.


Policies on expression vital in college selection

The parents and newly admitted students visiting colleges are asking about social life, study habits and – everyone’s favorite topic these days – job prospects after graduation. These are all important subjects, but if you care about your child’s intellectual development, or just want to keep the kid out of trouble, you should ask about the university’s attitude toward free speech.

For more than a decade, I’ve been on the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil-liberties watchdog group that defends the rights of college students and faculty. Many cases FIRE gets involved in stem from “politically correct” censorship; but the range of university abuses is much wider than that. The motives often have less to do with ideology than with administrative bullying, paranoia or stupidity.

To take a particularly absurd example, in January a Bergen Community College professor was placed on leave after he posted on Google+ a photograph of his young daughter wearing a “Game of Thrones” T-shirt with the quote, “I will take what is mine with fire & blood.” An administrator deemed the photo a disturbing threat of violence.

The cumulative effect of even such apparently minor incidents is pernicious. Students learn to keep their heads down and express their views only when they are sure to have a friendly audience. The competition among ideas, on which education and the advancement of knowledge depends, withers.

To find out a school’s true attitudes toward free speech, it isn’t enough to ask a seemingly straightforward question. On many campuses, outspokenness is highly valued – as long as you have the right views. And even the most egregiously offending universities usually pay lip service to the importance of open discussion and academic freedom. Instead, here are four specific questions that demand factual answers.

1. Does the campus host debates on controversial issues? If so, what are some recent topics?

Debates aren’t, of course, the only way to showcase a wide variety of views. The most controversial speakers I heard in college had the podium to themselves. But debates on hot-button issues do demonstrate that the institution isn’t just feigning allegiance to the idea of intellectual diversity, and that it provides models of how minority views can be confronted respectfully.

A related question is whether the school has rescinded an invitation to a speaker in the face of student or faculty uproar. FIRE has tallied a list of more than 120 instances in which demands have been made to disinvite speakers and withhold honors. Does this school support debate? Or does it see the presentation of controversial views as a threat to be squelched?

2. Do you have a “free speech zone”?

To people unfamiliar with campus jargon, this question sounds like it’s asking for evidence of free speech. In fact, it’s the opposite. A “free speech zone” is a tiny portion of campus, usually far away from the main thoroughfares, where students are allowed to hand out leaflets or hold protests only after they have filed the proper paperwork and given plenty of notice.

Designating a limited “free speech zone” does much more than keep noisy demonstrations away from quiet study spaces. It’s a way of squelching spontaneous action or immediate responses to controversial news. Free speech zones, says FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, “teach students that speech should be contained by officials, controlled and feared, rather then celebrated, utilized and engaged.”

3. What is the administrator-to-professor ratio? How much has that grown in the past 10 years?

This question illuminates where the university’s priorities lie – in teaching and research or in overhead – while also offering a clue about attitudes toward academic freedom and students’ rights. Administrators, not professors, are the ones making and enforcing rules against speech. They are the ones more concerned with maintaining order and a shiny institutional image than with intellectual inquiry and the marketplace of ideas.

“The administrative class is largely responsible for the hyperregulation of students’ lives, the lowering of due process standards for students accused of offenses, the extension of administrative jurisdiction far off campus, the proliferation of speech codes, and outright attempts to impose ideological conformity,” writes Lukianoff in his book “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.” He argues that “the dramatic expansion of the administrative class on campus may be the most important factor in the growth of campus intrusions into free speech and thought.”

4. Are students accused of offenses presumed innocent until proven guilty? What is the standard of proof? How do you adjudicate honor or student code violations?

This is a question to ask even if you couldn’t care less about free speech or intellectual inquiry. Any student can potentially get caught up in disciplinary proceedings, and on many campuses these processes are extremely arbitrary, even when the charges are serious enough that they should warrant criminal investigation.

But it turns out that most violations of free speech also entail a disregard for due process, as students and professors are found guilty of harassment or making threats without precise charges or clear standards of evidence. As FIRE has learned from numerous cases, many abuses of free speech are simply too ridiculous to survive public scrutiny. Consider the student charged with racial harassment for reading a book about how Notre Dame defeated a Ku Klux Klan march in 1924. Or the professor threatened with criminal disorderly conduct charges and reported to the “threat assessment team” for posting an image and quote from the science-fiction series “Firefly” on his door. Schools can only railroad people if they lack well-designed disciplinary mechanisms that respect due process.

The connection goes deeper. Both free speech and due process, Lukianoff notes, “are structural ways to deal with the human tendency towards unwarranted certainty.” Understanding how much we don’t know is the first step toward true education. Schools that respect this fundamental insight will also respect student rights.

Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics and public policy.