Does your campus really have free speech?

Does your campus really have free speech?

Does your campus really have free speech? That's what FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, tries to find out.

Above, students at Middlebury College protest a speech by Charles Murray. Photo by Lisa Rathke for the Associated Press. 

Does your campus really have free speech?

That’s what FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, tries to find out.

On Monday, April 3, the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh hosted Robert Shibley, the executive director of FIRE, for a conversation on campus violence and free speech.

He told attendees that, of the schools in North Carolina, UNC and Duke are the only two that are considered “green lights” — meaning that they fully oblige by the First Amendment. N.C. State and N.C. Central were both rated “yellow lights,” along with a good majority of the rest of the universities in the state. The only two that were rated red, or had “laughable” rules that go against the first amendment, were UNC-Greensboro and Davidson. FIRE examines campus handbooks to determine its rankings.

Shibley continued to discuss the use of violence on college campuses in efforts to silence opinions. The cases that he discussed were all cases in which liberal students protested to speak out against guests who were invited to their campuses. Each of the protests that Shibley talked about turned violent. He focused on two main examples: recent protests at the University of California Berkeley and Middlebury College in Vermont.

At Berkeley, students protested a talk by ultra right-wing blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. Students gathered in what was later called the “Black Bloc” in black masks and dark clothing to voice their disdain of Yiannopoulos, who has openly spoken negatively toward Islam, feminism and political correctness. At his talk, the protests turned violent, including a light that fell and started a fire.  The protesters vandalized a nearby Amazon store, and Yiannopoulos was eventually escorted out of the area with a bulletproof vest on.

At Middlebury, students protested a talk by Charles Murray, who wrote “The Bell Curve.” That book and his other literature links socioeconomic status to race and religion. Many people consider Murray to be a white supremacist. There were more protestors than attendees at Murray’s talk. Middlebury anticipated a protest, so they actually had a second room ready where he Skyped his audience. After leaving the second room, protesters found him and his host. The protest turned violent when a stop sign was thrown at his car and his host’s hair was pulled. She was hospitalized, and the pair eventually felt so unsafe that they left town.

FIRE is working to protect the rights of students and speakers on college campuses by protecting their freedom of speech. Colleges tend to be overwhelmingly liberal, according to Shibley, which can sometimes prevent those with different opinions from speaking. Chancellors and deans have a tough job of creating a safe environment for students to gain an education while also allowing abiding by the First Amendment.

Ultimately, FIRE believes in the right for everyone to voice their opinions, regardless of the effects on other people. Universities can be some of the biggest culprits for interfering with one’s freedom of speech. Whether they should or not, and to what extent, is still up for debate.

Iman Usmani
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