- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Colleges and universities that violate the First Amendment rights of their students may soon find themselves in court.

Speech First launched on Wednesday with a mission to support the free-speech rights of students “on campus, in the courts, and in the media.”

Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, said the legal group will level the playing field between college students and the powerful institutions they attend.

“When students’ speech rights on campus are violated, it’s tough to fight back,” Ms. Neily said in a statement. “A lone student doesn’t stand a chance against a school with a huge endowment and an army of lawyers. It’s a real David versus Goliath situation. That’s why Speech First was created.”

Speech First’s launch comes amid complaints that conservative ideas are being stifled and censored on college campuses. Guest speakers who hold politically incorrect views are regularly shut down, shouted down and even met with violence.

Just last week, pro-Palestine protesters at the University of Virginia used a bullhorn to shout down speakers at a “Building Bridges” event hosted by the Brody Jewish Center and Hoos for Israel. They ignored pleas from the rabbi presiding over the event to engage in thoughtful debate and discussion, and one person was reportedly assaulted before campus police arrived.

Studies have shown that illiberal attitudes toward free speech also have a chilling effect on the classroom.

A 2016 Foundation for Individual Rights in Education report found that more than half of all college students said they stopped themselves from sharing an opinion in class. Nearly one-third of all students said they self-censored in the classroom “because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers.”

Twenty-nine percent of all college students said they self-censored outside of the classroom for fear that their ideas “might be politically incorrect,” the study found.

Ms. Neily said colleges are sending a clear message to students who disagree with the campus orthodoxy: “Shut up” and keep your opinions to yourselves.

“This is wrong,” she said. “Censoring speech infringes the rights of students to express their opinions on campus. Just as important, it harms the rights of other students to listen to the speech — to challenge, debate and learn from the views of their fellow students.”

Speech First is a member association comprised of students, parents, faculty, alumni and concerned citizens. The legal group encourages students who believe their free-speech rights have been violated to reach out for help.

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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