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More students are reportedly having their First Amendment rights violated as they face increased discipline for exercising their free speech on college campuses.
A nonprofit legal organization that defends the individual rights of college students and faculty reported a “dramatic change” in the number of complaints it has received amid the ongoing protests across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death in late May.
“Why were students and faculty members facing threats to their rights when most institutions were in a summer lull — and why are the calls for help still coming in at a higher rate?” Adam Steinbaugh, the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote in a news release.
He cited George Floyd protests, “increased anti-racism activism, increased online learning” COVID-19 guidelines for in-person learning on campus as reasons behind the surge, noting that in “a significant portion of incidents,” students faced increased backlash and discipline for criticism of Black Lives Matter and racial issues.
“Where there is conflict and controversy, censorship follows,” Steinbaugh said. “A significant portion of incidents are borne from the heightened political and social tensions accelerated by the homicide of George Floyd.”
“In June, our Individual Rights Defense Program reviewed 287 cases of alleged rights violations. Over the previous two years, we reviewed an average of 49 cases each June,” he noted, adding that in July alone, 132 cases were reviewed while in the same month over the previous two years, the average has been only 38.
And while FIRE reviewed an average of 62 cases each August over the last two years, in 2020, IRDP reviewed 156 cases.
“June and July saw a watershed of viral social media posts revealing racist or antagonistic social media posts by students, incoming freshmen, and faculty, with calls for their institutions to take action. And many institutions did just that, rescinding offers of acceptance or expelling students,” Steinbaugh explained.
He also noted that the organization saw “university administrators make dubious pronouncements about what questions can be asked and threaten the ‘harshest’ consequences for speech they view as ‘hateful’ or unsupportive of institutional ‘values,’ First Amendment be damned.”
Back in June, the organization sent a letter to Kansas State University after it announced “an immediate review” over a student’s tweet saying Floyd had died because he overdosed and not due to police brutality. A boycott was threatened by student athletes demanding the school take action against the offending student but FIRE informed the university that the tweets were protected free speech.
College faculty members have also been reportedly facing scrutiny from their universities.
“We’ve seen faculty members targeted for incendiary comments about police” Steinbaugh noted and FIRE was contacted after a University of California-Los Angeles professor was placed on leave for allegedly saying the n-word while discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“While the tenor of the discussion on the issues raised by George Floyd’s death has changed, universities’ basic obligations under the First Amendment has not,” FIRE’s Peter Bonilla in a statement.
The organization has seen a spike in “questions about due process and expressive rights” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As students and faculty return to some campuses, they’re encountering administrators directing RAs not to speak to the media, warning medical school faculty not to speak to the media, and disciplining faculty for social media posts critical of their institutions’ responses to COVID-19. Still others are imposing overbroad contact tracing requirements that present risks to student organizations’ privacy rights,” Steinbaugh wrote.
“As classes move online, there is a greater likelihood that student and faculty exchanges by email and in class will be recorded — including classroom discussions of difficult material or offhand comments,” he added.
Steinbaugh pointed out that FIRE has been seeing a steady increase in its caseload over the last ten years before this year’s spike, suggesting that, in part, “the increase in cases also reflects an increase in the rate at which institutions — eager to avoid controversy, turmoil, or exposure to liability — will burden expressive rights.”
“It will be interesting to see if these trends continue as the fall semester moves forward, particularly as social and political turmoil continues to mount as the fall elections approach,” he concluded.
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