UC Gets Drawn into Free Speech Battle

Our own University of Cincinnati is at the very top of a new national list of colleges and universities released March 27, ranking above such hallowed institutions as Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins. Unfortunately, the list doesn’t involve academics or a


ur own University of Cincinnati is at the very top of a new national list of colleges and universities released March 27, ranking above such hallowed institutions as Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins.

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t involve academics or athletics, and isn’t exactly anything to brag about.

UC topped the list of the “12 worst colleges for free speech in 2012.” The list, compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), includes schools that have “severely violated free speech rights” and persistently refused to acknowledge their mistakes, the group said.

The list is sure to gain UC some notoriety as it was released via The Huffington Post, a popular website and news aggregator owned by AOL, which has more than 37 million unique visitors and 1 billion page views each month — making it more popular than The New York Times and not far behind The Daily Mail, the largest newspaper site, with 45 million unique visitors a month, according to gigaom.com.

UC made the list because of its so-called “free speech zone,” FIRE said.

“The University of Cincinnati maintains a shockingly restrictive free speech zone comprising just 0.1 percent of the school’s 137-acre campus,” FIRE’s list states.

“The policy, which was named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month back in December of 2007, quarantines ‘demonstrations, pickets, and rallies’ to a tiny portion of campus, requires students to request permission to use the zone a full 10 working days in advance, and threatens students with criminal prosecution for violations, warning that ‘[a]nyone violating this policy may be charged with trespassing,’” it adds.

Go Bearcats!

Other schools on the list include Syracuse University at No. 2, Harvard University at No. 4, Yale University at No. 5, Michigan State University at No. 7, and Johns Hopkins University at No. 9.

“These colleges and universities have deeply violated the principles that are supposed to animate higher education,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president. “Sunlight is one of the best disinfectants, and the public needs to know which schools to watch out for.”

FIRE described many of this dirty dozen as repeat offenders for refusing to undo punishments for what it said should be clearly protected speech on campus, while others are recent additions that have shown hostility to student criticism.

Formed in 1999, FIRE is a nonprofit group that focuses on civil liberties in academia. Some of FIRE’s critics, however, challenge the standards it uses when choosing what schools make the list.

For example, the group has defended the right of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. — the private evangelical Christian college founded by the late Jerry Falwell — when it pulled its sanction from a College Democrats group in 2009.

“The First Amendment recognizes Liberty University’s right, as a private institution, to set and enforce its own values,” FIRE said at the time. “That’s the freedom of association at work.”

Oh, really? Well, several of the schools on FIRE’s list — including Harvard and Johns Hopkins, for starters — are private universities that aren’t primarily funded by taxpayer money.

FIRE tries to explain its stance thusly: Public colleges are bound by the First Amendment. Therefore, they must provide their faculty and students with robust free speech rights. Private colleges are not bound by the First Amendment and therefore are not obligated to provide freedom of speech. (Sounds good so far.)

The group notes that the First Amendment also guarantees freedom of association to citizens, so they are free to establish institutions that promise virtually no speech rights if they choose. Accordingly, individuals also have the right to join these institutions and voluntarily relinquish some of their rights, FIRE says. (This is sad but true.)

But here is where things get a bit dicey.

FIRE justifies its criticism of private schools like Harvard because those institutions hold themselves as symbols of free speech and expression.

“The overwhelming majority of private colleges represent themselves as citadels of freedom, free expression, academic freedom, debate, and candor,” Lukianoff has said. “Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Brandeis, and virtually all the rest of our nation’s most prestigious universities make extensive promises of free speech in their promotional literature, in their handbooks, in their contracts with professors, and in their presentations to prospective students, donors, and alumni.

“Many colleges have raised literally billions of dollars and attracted the best and brightest students by presenting themselves as epicenters of open discourse and discussion,” he added. “It is therefore fraud of the highest order for these schools to induce students to attend based on promises of the utmost freedom and then deliver repression, censorship, and viewpoint discrimination.”

Now back to UC: FIRE’s concern stems from an incident involving the Young Americans for Liberty’s local chapter, which wants the right to petition in most outdoor spaces on campus without having to register with the university’s scheduling office. The conservative student group was collecting signatures to place an anti-union, 

“right to work” amendment on the Ohio ballot.

University officials told student Christopher Morbitzer that he would have to stay in a designated “free speech” zone on the northwest corner of McMicken Commons to collect signatures, and if he violated the restriction police would be called. That’s when Morbitzer and his group filed a federal lawsuit, which still is pending.

Greg Hand, a UC spokesman, said FIRE has mischaracterized the school’s policies and calls its claims “a fiction.” The policies require an advance notice of any controversial speech or activity so UC can provide protection for the speaker. Also, anyone who has ties to the campus generally doesn’t have to stay within the free speech zone, he added.

“If you don’t have a sponsor on campus, if you don’t have a person to vouch for you, you need to use the free speech zone,” Hand said. He estimated that roughly 90 percent of the people confined to the zone are preachers who have no ties to the school.

In fact, UC’s policies state, “Students shall have the right to invite and to hear persons of their own choosing. Scheduling procedures shall not be used as a device of censorship.”

Hand added, “We believe very firmly that the free exchange of ideas is part of our educational mission and that can take place, and sometimes especially takes place, outside of the classroom.”