The College of William and Mary has been labeled a “red light” school by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to protecting and supporting the freedom of speech on college campuses, because of a clause in the Student Handbook’s code of conduct that requires posters to meet certain community standards.
In December 2008, FIRE sent out letters to several hundred higher education administrators to warn that certain aspects of their institution’s policies may threaten the free speech rights of students and faculty, potentially making the administrators personally liable if a student or faculty member should choose to bring a case to court.
“We kind of wanted to put university administrators on notice to say ‘Now you are warned — you should have known,’” FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy William Creeley said.
When one of FIRE’s warning letters was sent to College President Taylor Reveley, he said he was surprised.
“William and Mary has a long tradition of respecting First Amendment rights,” Reveley said. “Based on my own experience — on what I’ve seen and heard on campus — free expression is vibrantly alive at William and Mary. I don’t think William and Mary is stifling free speech.”
Creeley said that FIRE defines a “red light” school as “a university that has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Creeley argues that the College’s code of conduct policy outlining community standards for posters, banners and signs on campus puts the College in the category of a “red lights” school.
“It’s a problem with vagueness,” Creeley said. “Students are left to guess what an acceptable community standard is, and as a result of being left to guess, they are more likely than not to choose not to speak, that is to engage in self censorship. This is known as [the] chilling effect and it’s something specifically prohibited by the first amendment.”
However, Creeley did go on to add one positive thing about the College’s policies.
“The harassment policies here actually look relatively sound, which is great because that’s where FIRE sees a lot of problems,” Creeley said.
Out of over 360 institutions reviewed by FIRE, roughly two-thirds were labeled “red light” schools, including such institutions as Princeton University and the University of Virginia.
Ninety-eight percent of schools received either a “red light” or “yellow light,” while only eight schools in the country received a “green light” rating.
Despite the warning letter from FIRE, Reveley still has confidence that the College has committed no violation.
Creeley said that restricting free speech on college campuses is a vital problem to address because when those rights are stifled, students “are being denied some of the most important gains that one can get from a college education.”
“It is not in a student’s best interest to go through college in a bubble where they are never hearing a dissenting point of view or they never have their own points of view challenged,” he said.
FIRE decided to send out the warning letters at this time because of its continuing dissatisfaction with institutions adhering to what it considers to be unlawful policies.
“One would imagine that after such clear legal pronouncements at federal courts all over the country, that university administrators would realize that such restrictions on student and faculty speech on campus are simply impermissible and frankly illegal,” Creeley said.
Reveley stated that he does not think it is reasonable that the College has received a warning letter from FIRE, but he also says that the College is “in good company.”
Creeley explained why some schools make no changes to their free speech policies, even after FIRE contacts them.
“First of all, I think that they are either a) ignorant of the state of the law, or b) ignorant of the fact that their policies do restrict student speech in tangible and real ways,” Creeley said. “What we’re trying to do is take away one of the two excuses: ignorance of the law.”
Reveley said that the College began an ongoing review of First Amendment policies at the College even before they received the letter from FIRE.
“We are reviewing our policies to be sure none of them might be read to limit free speech,” Reveley said. “If we find any language that might theoretically violate the first amendment, we’ll fix the problem.”
Reveley did not explicitly state whether or not the College will respond to the letter. He is also skeptical as to whether or not other schools would respond.
Creeley hopes that this will not be the case for all institutions that received letters.
“I think that university administrators should look past their annoyance and perhaps embarrassment and work either with [FIRE] or independently to rectify the problems as quickly as possible,” Creeley said.