Dispatch editorial: Putting a chill on campus speech

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

New free-speech rules at one Ohio public university underscore that much work remains to be done to defend the First Amendment on college campuses.

The University of Toledo has adopted an “expression on campus” document “to promote the free exchange of ideas and the safe and efficient operation of the university.” The policy was developed following an appearance on campus a year ago by Republican strategist Karl Rove. He attracted sign-carrying protesters who say they were stopped by police from entering the event.

The protesters claimed that barring them from the event violated their free-speech rights. The university responded with the new policy in an attempt to protect free-speech rights.

But The (Toledo) Blade pointed out that it’s unclear how such a protest would be treated under the new policy. It “emphasizes the fostering of free speech and right to assemble but prohibits activities that disrupt teaching, business operations or providing client services,” the Blade reported.

The story quoted a university spokesman, who referred to a section of the policy that states that the school “reserves the right to address such situations as circumstances warrant.”

The policy was developed with input from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a 15-year-old nonpartisan organization based in Philadelphia that is dedicated to promoting free speech. On its website, TheFIRE.org, the group gives a green (best), yellow or red ranking of universities for how well they guarantee free speech.

Even after putting this policy into place, the University of Toledo still rates an abysmal “red.” Ohio State University, Ohio University and Kenyon College also rank red. The only Ohio college ranked “green” is Cleveland State University.

FIRE sees a small positive trend in free-speech policies, but says a majority of schools continue to “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free-speech rights of students.”

In its annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report this year, the group found that “nearly 55 percent of the 437 colleges and universities” had such speech-limiting guidelines, but this marked “the sixth consecutive year... this percentage has dropped.”

Ironically countering this trend, FIRE notes, is that “under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, a number of universities have newly adopted unconstitutional speech codes under the guise of harassment policies.”

For example, Florida State University’s Equal Opportunity and Non-Discrimination Statement contains language “so broad that you could drive a truck through it, leaving the university with unfettered discretion to punish virtually any speech or expression it finds undesirable,” FIRE says.

Often, it is not the protesters who are suppressed, but the people they oppose. For example, the site lists speakers who have been disinvited under pressure from protesters or whom protesters tried to have disinvited. Of the 284 listings, a little more than half of the speakers were the subject of pressure from the left, including George W. Bush (OSU, 2002), John McCain (Ohio Wesleyan University, 2010) and conservative gender-issues author Christina Hoff Sommers (Oberlin College, 2015).

College campuses are supposed to be bastions of free speech, but often have become fortresses of speech-suppression and groupthink. Colleges should establish clear rules promoting free speech and refuse to bow to pressure to disinvite speakers simply on the basis of ideology.