- - Friday, July 11, 2014

Congress is considering a constitutional amendment to eliminate the free-speech protections of the First Amendment. Over at the Internal Revenue Service, high-level officials are caught harassing American citizens for their political beliefs, but obstructing the exercise of free speech is not limited to Washington.

College campuses everywhere have dropped the pretense of academic freedom, adopting speech codes to restrict what can be said or thought, lest someone take offense at the expression of an unfamiliar idea. The frightened few cowering in the faculty lounge want to sanitize the public discourse.

Earlier this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed several federal lawsuits designed to roll back the campus assault on free expression at Chicago State University, Iowa State University, Ohio University and Citrus College in Glendora, Calif.

“College campuses have been uniquely recognized as the quintessential marketplace of ideas upon which the concept of the First Amendment was based,” says Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer working on behalf of the foundation.


Mocking T-shirts are in the sights at Ohio University, which barred a student group from wearing apparel with “sarcastic” messages. Administrators said the message on the shirts “objectified women” and “promoted prostitution” in violation of a speech code that forbids any “act that degrades, demeans or disgraces” another. The group had used the slogans on T-shirts worn on campus in 1976 without a peep of protest.

Citrus College forbids “unapproved thoughts” on 98 percent of the campus, limiting expression to a specially marked “free-speech area.” Vincenzo Sinapi-Riddle, a student, was threatened with eviction from the campus for collecting signatures outside the zone for a petition opposing spying by the National Security Agency. His suit challenges college rules restricting petitioning, leafleting and similar activities. He is further challenging the administration’s two-week approval process to review the “point of view” of any prospective student organization. The college has been sued before over its “free-speech area” and lost.

In some ways, the schools themselves are playing fast and loose with the rules. “The law in this area is so well established,” says Mr. Corn-Revere, the First Amendment lawyer. “The abridgements of basic rights that occurred in these cases violate Supreme Court commands that go back decades.”

Academics like Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor pushing these schemes, surely know better. Mr. Lessig’s own Super PAC was formed to outlaw other Super PACs. He wants to silence Tea Party groups by limiting their financial resources, which in turn restricts their ability to get their word out.

When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the early 19th century, he marveled at American schools. “In New England,” he wrote, “every citizen receives the elementary notions of human knowledge. He is taught, moreover, the doctrines and the evidences of his religion, the history of his country, and the leading features of its Constitution.”

These fundamentals have largely been replaced by studies that focus on diversity, “tolerance,” the art of taking offense and the perils of global warming. Who needs free speech when professors and administrators can tell their students what to think?