F.I.R.E. At Your Fingertips

by Ernesto Alvarez

Freedom of speech is one of the most intrinsically defended rights in the United States. It’s protected by enumeration in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. This means that one would expect any and all public institutions to abide by such fundamental enumerations. But is this the case? If not, would you have the ability, or even time to address the issue and fight for your right to free speech?

FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is a private institution that has made it its mission to make sure that fundamental rights like these are not infringed upon in college and university campuses. It was founded in 1998 by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A Silverglate, quite literally by public demand. After they both co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, many people all across America requested that they help them with issues of campus entities violating their constitutional rights or treating them unequally in relation to other parties.

Currently, their resume consists of over 300 successful cases of them overturning college bureaucratic decisions to limit speech, restrict due process, restrict freedom of association, or anything of the sort for that matter. Two of those cases included censorship of local satire publication The Koala in 2002, and the media funding freeze of 2010, both at UCSD.

Luckily, one does not have to wait for an unfortunate incident of the school limiting one’s rights to utilize the help of FIRE. On their website, they have university campuses all across the country listed with a rating system of their own to evaluate how much freedom of speech students are actually allowed on their campuses. FIRE’s Speech Code Rating System manifests itself as a very simplistic and intuitive, yet informative, traffic light. This, naturally, allows for three levels;

Green: FIRE is unable to find a policy that “seriously imperils speech”

Yellow: The institution “has some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech”

Red: The institution “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech”

A quick snapshot of the rating system applied to all schools in California reveals that they all fall under either the yellow or red category. UCSD has a speech code rating of red. As mentioned before, this is because one or more of the policies is very restrictive to freedom of speech on campus. The specific policy that FIRE believes does this is the one regarding sexual harassment. The policy reads as such;

“Sexual harassment may be verbal, visual or physical conduct.

Examples include:

Sexual innuendos and other seductive behavior, including pressure for sexual activity such as repeated, unwanted requests for dates, and repeated inappropriate personal comments, staring, or touching;

Remarks of a sexual nature about a person’s clothing or body; Unwelcome and inappropriate letters, telephone calls, electronic mail, or other communications or gifts.”

I do not speak for FIRE when I say this, but I believe that they rate this specific policy red because of its lack of specificity. The first example of sexual innuendo and seductive behavior does not specify that it has to be unwelcome, which means that any form of flirting, even when welcome, could be used by someone as grounds for accusation of improper conduct. The specification of “unwanted” conduct appears after the word “including,” which implies that sexual harassment is not limited to strictly unwanted seductive behaviors.

It also lists remarks of a sexual nature about one’s clothing or body, but does not specify to whom the remarks must be directed at. Obviously, a person is not being harassed if he or she is being spoken about in regards to their clothes all the way on the other side of the room, and if it is a remark made to a third party that is not meant to offend or even get the attention of the individual being spoken of. The language in UCSD’s policy would allow for an innocent conversation not meant to provoke anyone such as this to be targeted by a sexual harassment accusation.

UCSD received yellow ratings on other policies regarding internet usage, bias and hate speech, and restricting freedom of conscience. What is marvelous about this rating system is that FIRE not only provides the entire policy on their website as a PDF format, but they also have screenshots of specific parts of the policy that they believe have the language that makes it possible to unjustly limit individual liberties on campus.

Ultimately, what you should take away from this is the fact that you have a private institution that is willing to defend your constitutional rights on campus (for free!) by submitting a case on their website with simply the click of a button. More information about FIRE can be viewed at http://thefire.org/.

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