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What We’re Reading: October 2019

Many students are actively fostering a culture of free expression on their campuses. For our October readings, we include items on students standing up for free expression and freedom of association at the University of Alabama, Radford University, Wayne State, and the University of Michigan (alas, we include too a reading on the heckler’s veto at Georgetown Law). This month our Big Read is neither a book nor report but PEN America’s new web-based guide with resources for administrators, faculty, and students on campus free expression issues.

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Campus Happenings

Open Letter: Free Speech Is Not Conditional

Jack Kappelman and Marquis Hollingsworth | Crimson White | September 12, 2019

University of Alabama students respond to administrators about Dean of Students Jamie R. Riley, who resigned after Breitbart News published his past tweets about racism. “We, the Concerned Students of the University of Alabama hereby affirm our solidarity with Dr. Riley and commit ourselves to defend his right to self-expression.” Nearly 500 students have signed the letter.

Probe Starts After RU Student Newspapers Go Missing

Sam Wall | Roanoke Times | September 26, 2019

Approximately 1,000 of 1,500 copies of Radford University’s student paper disappeared overnight under mysterious circumstances. The front page featured a photo of a recently-deceased staff person. Administrators had expressed concern that the photo might be upsetting. Some question the timing and motive; the incident occurred only hours before a campus visit by Katie Couric and during the University’s family week. Police are investigating the matter.

Protesters Shout Homeland Security Chief Off Georgetown University Stage

Nick Miroff | Washington Post | October 7, 2019

Georgetown Law invited Secretary McAleenan to speak at an immigration forum. “As McAleenan was interrupted, the forum’s organizers and other audience members pleaded with them to let the event proceed. McAleenan began again after several frustrated minutes, telling the audience he respects free-speech rights and hoped to have a discussion about policy.” After four unsuccessful attempts to start his speech, the secretary left.

State and Federal Policies

Letter to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Assistant Secretary Robert King | Department of Education | August 29, 2019

The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies has come under scrutiny from the Department of Education, which has threatened to cut federal funding to the program. The Department writes that consortium activities, while “perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom…are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support.” UNC-Chapel Hill’s Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson offered an official response to the letter. Duke President Vincent E. Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth also responded, as did the ACLU. The Department of Education, in a September 25 letter, maintains that the response of the Duke-UNC Consortium is inadequate.

Intervarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan | September 20, 2019

In a move that limits freedom of student association, Wayne State derecognized a chapter of Christians-only group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The school argued in court that IVCF violated its religious nondiscrimination policies. The judge ordered the two parties to meet and develop a case management plan as they proceed through district court.

Speech First v. Schlissel

United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit | September 23, 2019

Advocacy group Speech First Inc. challenged University of Michigan’s bullying, harassment, and Bias Response Team policies on behalf of its student members. The group alleged that the policies chill open expression. The court agreed, finding University policies “overbroad and vague” and that its Bias Response Team “acts by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech” on campus. The case is remanded to district court.

Op-eds and Think Pieces

This is What a Real Threat to Campus Free Speech Looks Like

David M. Perry | CNN | September 21, 2019

As the Department of Education threatens to cut funding from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, a critic of the Department’s action weighs in: “The idea of a federal agency demanding oversight of college course content, down to scrutinizing syllabi, should send shivers down the spines of everyone who cares about education or government overreach.”

The Senate Takes on Campus Censorship

Sen. Chuck Grassley | Wall Street Journal | September 25, 2019 (paywall)

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) announces that “as part of my oversight work in the Senate, I’m seeking answers from some of the nation’s top universities about incidents that have taken place on their campuses.”

Free to Hate? Safe Spaces in American Politics

Michael C. Munger | Independent Review | Fall 2019 (paywall)

“Academic freedom requires safe spaces. The notion of a university entails a strong presumption that any bona fide group can associate in its own space and choose what it wants to hear.” Problems arise when some see creating “a single, global ‘safe space’ as the first task of the university. Groups that have every right to use their private safe space are tempted to annex the entire university, denying, disinviting, or disrupting presentations by speakers invited by other groups. That is a violation of academic freedom.”

Big Reads

PEN America Campus Free Speech Guide

Campus Free Speech Project | PEN America | September 24, 2019

Following up on its 2019 study, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America, PEN America created this comprehensive web-based guide that “provides practical, principled advice to students, faculty, and administrators with the aim of keeping campuses open to a broad range of ideas and perspectives. Highlights include: An updated version of PEN America’s Principles on Campus Free Speech,” databases, statistics, case studies, and articles.

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