Free Speech for College Students: FIRE's Guide Updated

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has published a second edition of its outstanding Guide to Free Speech on Campus, one of its five Guides to Student Rights on Campus. Every college student should read this book.

I hasten to add that I'm not the only one who likes FIRE's free speech guide. The top two endorsers on its back cover are Nadine Strossen and Edwin Meese, III. College students today may not recognize these names but they will seem a very odd couple for anyone who remembers the 1980s, when Meese was Attorney General in the Reagan administration and Strossen was President of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But of course that's the point. FIRE has always prided itself on the even-handed defense of individual rights for college students and faculty. And its supporters have always included advocates of student and faculty rights from across the political spectrum.

Seeing these names juxtaposed reminds me of seeing Strossen and Meese together when they debated at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln many years ago. I believe the debate may have been about the death penalty but what I remember is that Ed Meese fell off the back of the stage and hit his head. Everyone was stunned, but the first to recover was Meese himself, who returned to the stage and assured the audience that he was fine, thanks to his hard head. And the debate went on.

But on the back cover of FIRE's Guide, Meese and Strossen are not debating. They may not agree on much, but both are hard-headed about applying the First Amendment strictly and vigorously on college campuses.

The Guide begins with a brief but enlightening history of free speech from John Milton and John Stuart Mill through the Alien and Sedition Acts and subsequent free speech controversies in American history. It briskly traces the growth of modern First Amendment law from its origin in the 1920s through its consolidation in the 1960s and 1970s. The section ends with an introduction to campus controversies of the past several decades, including recent issues of bullying and online speech.

The major portion of the book provides an overview of First Amendment law with a focus on the First Amendment rights of college students. Citing dozens of legal cases, it provides highly readable accounts of basic First Amendment topics, concepts, and principles.

The Guide concludes with 23 realistic scenarios drawing directly on FIRE's experience. This section is full of practical advice ranging from "read campus policies" to "contact FIRE."

Despite its brevity and nontechnical nature, the Guide is remarkably systematic and rigorous in its coverage of First Amendment freedom of expression. Topics include fighting words, obscenity, defamation, religious speech, political speech, symbolic speech, compelled speech, indoctrination, government action, public forums, the heckler's veto, overbreadth, vagueness, chilling effects, prior restraint, content discrimination, viewpoint discrimination, hate speech, harassment, bullying, free speech zones, and campus speech codes.

One highlight is the thorough analysis of discriminatory harassment. Acts of harassment, FIRE makes clear, are not protected by the First Amendment, but harassment must be strictly defined. The mere expression of offensive ideas is fully protected by the First Amendment.

Also of note, the Guide repeatedly makes the case that free speech is not just a First Amendment right and constitutional value. Whatever its legal status, free speech is central to democracy (its social value), central to education and inquiry (its academic value), and central to the dignity of the individual (its moral value).

The Guide is not intended as a general treatment of academic freedom in higher education. Academic freedom, as it makes clear, is much more than individual rights. Academic freedom involves the organization and delivery of a curriculum by faculty, who operate collectively as well as individually, and the protection of educational institutions from external coercion and control.

But academic freedom, professors, and higher education are already defended by two national organizations: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the National Association of Scholars (NAS). FIRE's special niche is its central concern with individual rights, especially those of students.

FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus is not just for students, however, and not just for Nadine Strossen and Ed Meese. It should be read by anyone who cares about free speech or higher education. And if you don't care about either, read it anyway: You'll learn why you should care about both.