There are 296 American public officials at grave risk of being personally sued for civil rights violations. The names of those who may soon be paying out of pocket for civil damages include some of America’s most respected citizens, who every day manage multi-million dollar budgets and massive numbers of government employees with little oversight and even less accountability. Can you guess who they are?
They are the presidents of many of America’s largest and most prestigious public colleges and universities.
It may not occur to many Americans that the president of a public university is, in many ways, a government employee like any other. Granted, they tend to wear fancy suits, live in mansions, and sometimes even have what amount to private jets for their own personal use, but when it comes to the Constitution, they are legally bound to respect it just as much as your local sewer district commissioner.
Unfortunately, too many of them don’t seem to have gotten the memo about their obligations under the Bill of Rights. So over Christmas week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, sent it to them.
In a letter to 296 public college and university presidents and general counsel, FIRE warned that the law is increasingly clear that speech codes at public universities are unconstitutional and that they risk being held personally liable for violating the free speech rights of their students if they continue to maintain policies censoring speech. That goes for all of their administrative employees as well, from deans and provosts to lower-level student affairs officials.
The 296 college administrations that received the letter consist of all of the schools deemed to have “red-light” and “yellow-light” speech codes by FIRE’s latest report on campus speech restrictions: Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011. This fifth edition of the annual report reveals that speech codes on public campuses are slowly declining in number. Three years ago, 79 percent of public colleges had red-light speech codes, compared to “only” 67 percent today. However, it also revealed that new threats to free speech are on the horizon thanks to proposed “anti-bullying” laws like that introduced in Congress by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).