FIRE puts universities in hot seat on free speech

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College campuses across America have policies to secure and protect the freedom of speech. However, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has created a database with several “disinvite” instances that could support another agenda.

FIRE has tried to expose censorship on campuses by documenting attempts to disinvite speakers from their campuses on the basis of varying political views.

FIRE’s vice president of policy reform Azhar Majeed said while some universities have become more aware of the need to defend First Amendment rights, the emerging trend seems to actually be students calling for restrictions on speech.

“Now more of our challenges are against students themselves,” said Majeed, by phone. “Students themselves are calling for censorship and university officials tend to go along with that.”

Majeed suggests that more free-speech advocates should educate students on how to properly handle speech they don’t like. He argues that destruction or violent protests should not be the resolution.

Michigan State University’s website states that it prides itself on being a university that advocates for inclusion and diversity.Despite a few instances reported on the disinvite database, (most recently the push back against George Will’s commencement invite in 2014), Majeed said that MSU has taken steps in the right direction.

“With respect to MSU specific, we’ve been in touch to try to improve some of the regulations and policies,” said Majeed. “I want to commend the administration, I think they’ve paid attention.”

MSU advertising junior Becky Beller

Brandi Scarber

MSU advertising junior Becky Beller

MSU advertising junior Becky Beller says that regulating free speech on college campuses is unjust.

“It’s important that we hear all views, even if they’re not conforming with the rest of society,” Beller said. “It’s important that we hear all of the views so that we can formulate our own opinions.”

The University of Michigan has also had instances documented on the disinvite database, but, Rick Fitzgerald,  director of public affairs and internal communications, believes U of M has it covered.

“We’ve had great success with this approach in hosting controversial speakers on our campus,” said Fitzgerald, by email. “We also had a good network on campus for working closely with groups who may spark protests or media coverage.”

Majeed said a common goal among institutions should be to create and welcome open discourse and not create a divide.

“It’s important to make all students very welcomed and safe and included. Perfectly within the mission of the university,” said Majeed. “At the same time, universities don’t have to limit free speech to do so.”

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