FIRE Pens Open Letter to President Obama: Asks for help fighting unconstitutional speech codes on college campuses

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2009—This Inauguration Day, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent President Barack Obama an open letter requesting that, as a constitutional lawyer and the leader of the nation’s executive branch, he and his administration join the fight against college and university speech codes that are infringing on the rights of millions of our nation’s college students.

"Millions of American students are being taught that colleges have the power to censor and punish speech that the Bill of Rights protects," Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s president, said. "Failing to educate an entire generation about our constitutional ideals of liberty—and, still worse, actually teaching students that they have a duty to censor opinions with which they disagree—means that it will not be long before these illiberal attitudes result in severe consequences for our Republic."

FIRE’s letter informed President Obama that "despite ten federal court decisions unequivocally striking down campus speech codes on First Amendment grounds from 1989 to 2008, the number of unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech actually has dramatically increased during that time." FIRE’s detailed study, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, found that 77% of public colleges and universities maintain speech codes that fail to pass constitutional muster.

FIRE also pointed out that public universities frequently punish protected expression despite being forbidden to do so by the First Amendment.

For example, at Valdosta State University in Georgia, a student was expelled for creating a satirical online collage to peacefully protest the university’s plans to construct campus parking garages. At Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, a student-employee was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book with pictures of Klansmen on the cover, despite the fact that the book was celebrating the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan. FIRE is also fighting on behalf of a student government leader at Michigan State University who was found guilty of violating the school’s spamming policy simply for sending an e-mail to a group of faculty encouraging them to weigh in on proposed changes to university policy.

Private colleges are also failing to uphold the promises of freedom of expression they have made to students and faculty. At Brandeis University, FIRE is fighting for a professor found guilty of racial harassment because he used the term "wetbacks" in order to explain and critique the term in his Latin American Politics class. At Tufts University, FIRE has been fighting to overturn a finding of racial harassment against a student newspaper for printing factual information about Islam as part of a satirical advertisement.

"Today, FIRE asks for President Obama’s help in ending restrictions on student and faculty rights, because our nation’s institutions of higher education have seemingly ignored clear pronouncements from both the legislative and judicial branches," Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, said. "College harassment policies have inexplicably failed to adhere to the precise legal standard announced by the United States Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, and Congress, while Obama was a U.S. Senator, issued its second ‘sense of Congress’ resolution in just ten years on the value of free speech on campus, but to little practical result."

In Davis, the Court defined student-on-student harassment as conduct which is "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities."

"If President Obama simply speaks out against speech codes, colleges will get the message that they must finally begin to obey the law," Lukianoff said.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at

Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; [email protected]
Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; [email protected]
President Barack Obama: 202-456-1111; [email protected]