Extra Credit

Free speech rights for college students at risk

While a company imposes its owner’s beliefs on employees because our courts say corporations are people with First Amendment rights, there is debate whether those same rights should be extended to a college student who can vote and fight (and die, I might add) for their country.

This may sound shocking to some, but censorship on college campuses is a very real thing, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, an independent federal agency tasked with fighting for Americans’ Constitutionally given rights, has recently issued startling statements that indicate its leader thinks free speech isn’t something a college student is even entitled to.

In a July briefing on sexual harassment claims and campus speech codes, Civil Rights Commissioner Michael Yaki had this to say:

“Certain factors in how the juvenile or adolescent or young adult brain processes information is vastly different from the way that we adults do.

So, when we sit back and talk about what is right or wrong in terms of First Amendment jurisprudence from a reasonable person’s standpoint, we are really not looking into the same referential viewpoint of these people, of an adolescent or young adult, including those in universities…

…and because of that, and because of the unique nature of a university campus setting, I think that there are very good and compelling reasons why broader policies and prohibitions on conduct in activities, and in some instances speech, are acceptable on a college campus level that might not be acceptable, say, in an adult work environment or in an adult situation.”

To be fair, much of what Yaki spoke about was in relation to supporting codes that ban speech and symbolic expression perceived to be conveying a racist or sexist message.

Now, there is no room for hate or bigotry in the public sphere, but I have two problems with what Yaki’s proposes, and you should too. First: Who is going to determine what makes a message racist or sexist? Second: Past court decisions have already addressed this issue and have upheld the rule that such restrictions on college students are patently unconstitutional.

The law of the land is that students do not have to forfeit their First Amendment rights when they step foot on campus, even when involved in racially and sexually offensive fraternal activities, but I wouldn’t expect Yaki to care about the law considering he violated it 70 times in San Francisco.

More troubling than that is Yaki’s reasoning for limiting the free speech rights of college students. His comments indicate he believes college students aren’t mentally developed enough to have the same rights as an adult, a stark contrast of the Supreme Court’s opinion that the college campus is a “vital center for the nation’s intellectual life.”

While there are cognizant differences between younger and older adults, that hardly justifies stripping students of their rights when they are perfectly able to fight and die for their country whether voluntarily or by draft. Still, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has found that 65 percent of liberal arts colleges have speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

Yaki and the Civil Rights Commission are treading a slippery slope. How long until they and others in power turn to other portions of the population they deem mentally incapable of having the right to speak their mind?