Higher Education

Northwestern takes action to protect First Amendment rights

November 25, 2016

Brandon Dutcher

Free speech is a hot topic these days, especially as it relates to America’s college campuses. To see what I mean, look no further than George Will’s latest column (“Higher education is awash with hysteria. That might have helped elect Trump.”).

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonprofit organization which defends freedom of speech on college campuses. On November 1, FIRE sent a certified letter to the presidents of 111 public colleges and universities nationwide which have policies that, according to FIRE, “clearly and substantially restrict student and faculty speech on campus.”

Oklahoma State University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University were the two institutions in Oklahoma that received letters.

The specific concern at Northwestern had to do with the school’s Internet usage policies. It seems that certain behaviors—including “promoting, supporting or celebrating religion or religious institutions”—are not permitted on student email accounts on the university’s networks.

According to FIRE, “university administrators who continue to violate clearly established law with respect to expressive rights risk losing their ‘qualified immunity’—meaning they could be held personally liable for monetary damages in a student or faculty member’s lawsuit.”

“Rather than run the risk of being held personally liable,” said FIRE director of policy reform Azhar Majeed, “administrators should take this opportunity to be proactive and revise their institutions’ speech codes.”

I asked Northwestern administrators if they intend to do so. To their great credit, they do. Steven J. Valencia, Associate Vice President for University Relations, told me in an email: “Appropriate personnel have conducted an initial review of our policies regarding use of network resources and have concluded the language in question is unnecessary and will be deleted. We will work to update all documents that contain this policy.”

“The leadership of Northwestern is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of students and employees,” he says.

Holding on to our First Amendment rights is a never-ending struggle. According to a Rasmussen survey in September, “two out of three Americans view political correctness as a threat and say they don’t have freedom of speech anymore.”

We should all be grateful for small victories, like the one at Northwestern.