Monday, December 13, 2010

Unlearning the Lessons Being Taught

by Ann Snyder

Islamists aren't the only threat to speech critical of Islam. Many European states, for example, have criminalized speech acts through legally enforced "political correctness" embodied in "hate speech" laws. In America, where it still remains (more or less) legal to think and speak, the assault on free expression is being waged on a different front, our universities. The target? The minds of America's youth.

Far from being bastions of free thought and critical inquiry, our universities, through speech codes, security fees, and other tactics, begin the "political correctness" indoctrination process early, teaching young Americans what they may and may not say (READ: think). Naturally, included in the realm of the verboten is expression deemed critical of Islam.

One Philadelphia organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights on America's campuses, is fighting back and has handled a few cases that will be of particular interest to our readers:

Student group slapped with "security fee" for Wilders event: In October of 2009, the student organization, Temple University Purpose (TUP), sponsored an event with Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who currently faces prosecution for "hate speech" in the Netherlands. Several weeks later, the group received charges for an additional "security fee" for the event. Charging extra security fees for a controversial event because of a potential hostile reaction from the audience has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it financially burdens speech. Citing this precedent and through dogged persistence, the FIRE succeeded in having the fee withdrawn.

College Republicans investigated for fake flag "desecration" at anti-terrorism event: In 2007, San Francisco State University's College Republicans were subjected to disciplinary action for stepping on mock Hezbollah and Hamas flags as part of an anti-terrorism event. With help from the FIRE, the witch-hunt was ended and students escaped punishment. Later, with the assistance of the FIRE's Speech Codes Litigation Project and the Alliance Defense Fund, the College Republicans delivered a little disciplinary action of their own, raising and winning a constitutional challenge to the university's speech code.

"Portraits of Terror" art exhibit censored: In 2006, then Penn State student, Joshua Stulman's exhibit "Portraits of Terror" was pulled by the university just three days before its opening. According to FIRE President, Greg Lukianoff, the exhibit was censored "twice: first because administrators didn't like what it had to say, and later out of fear that violence would ensue if his artwork were shown on campus." The FIRE has helped raise awareness of the incident through writing and a short documentary. Is there anyone out there with the courage to show this exhibit?

Through cases like those enumerated above related to expression concerning Islam, and through countless others directed more generally at protecting individual liberty on our campuses, the FIRE is helping students to unlearn some dangerous lessons they are being taught at our colleges and universities about the scope of individual liberty. To paraphrase Judge Learned Hand, liberty lies in the hearts and minds of men and women; if it dies there, no laws can save it. Those at the FIRE understand this proposition and are fighting to keep liberty alive in one of the places it counts the most.

For our readers in Philadelphia, the FIRE will be presenting its work on December 10, 2010 at a CLE course they developed titled, "Free Speech 101: Protecting Free Expression and the First Amendment at our Nation's Colleges and Universities."

Ann Snyder, The Legal Project

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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