The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) puts up a lot of news, but you can read it on their webpage. This piece, however, I found worth calling to your notice. Click on the screenshot to read:
This stunt is especially surprising because Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, has gotten a “green-light” rating from FIRE, which is FIRE’s highest rating for free expression within a university. But, as we know, fighting for freedom of expression is a never-ending task—especially these days when “harm” (meaning “offense taken”) is often judged to trump freedom of speech. And that’s apparently what happened at Emory:
ATLANTA, Jan. 10, 2022 — Emory University’s laudable free speech promises mean nothing to the Emory Law Student Bar Association, which denied recognition to a free-speech-focused student group because open discussion could cause “harm.”
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called on Emory Law to promptly process the Emory Free Speech Forum’s application for a charter. FIRE first wrote to the school on Nov. 1 and received no response.
“The rejection of the Emory Free Speech Forum exemplifies the exact reason why this club must exist,” said Michael Reed-Price, president of EFSF. “Emory Law School’s Student Bar Association values free speech only so long as the ideas are in line with their viewpoint. The SBA need not agree with our ideas, they must merely tolerate our right to express them.”
Emory University is one of the few institutions in the country to earn a “green light”rating from FIRE for its speech-protective policies. Seeking to bolster this commitment to free speech, EFSF is a non-partisan student group “devoted to fostering critical discourse and open dialogue surrounding important issues in law and society.” In October, the group applied for a charter from the SBA, which would allow EFSF to seek university funding and use university resources.
EFSF satisfied all criteria for recognition. However, several SBA members objected to the speakers the group sought to host, the group’s decision to forgo moderators for its discussion-based events, and the group’s perceived similarity to the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society.
The SBA ultimately rejected EFSF’s application, citing the “nature of this group” and speculating that EFSF’s discussions “will likely give rise to a precarious environment – one where the conversation might very easily devolve.” The SBA admitted it was “hesitant to issue a charter when there are no apparent safeguards in place to prevent potential and real harm that could result from these discussions[.]”
I wonder if other student organizations are required to specify safeguards against “potential and real harm”. For, as you know, you can get “potential and real harm” these days from something as seemingly innocuous as a chess club. If you read the second link above (“called on”), you’ll see a peeved FIRE writing to Emory’s President, General Counsel, and Dean asking them for an answer, and enclosing a nine-page letter that they sent on November 1 (pdf here).
You can read it for yourself, but I think Emory will have to cave, for, as FIRE points out, this student decision violates the University’s own free-expression policy:
Emory Law makes affirmative, robust commitments to its students’ freedom of expression. As a private institution, the law school is not required to make these commitments by virtue of the First Amendment. However, Emory Law has a legal and moral duty to adhere to the promises it makes.
Emory Law incorporates Emory University’s “Respect for Open Expression Policy.” That policy affirms “an environment where the open expression of ideas and open, vigorous debate and speech are valued, promoted, and encouraged,” including “these freedoms of thought, inquiry, speech, and assembly.” The policy explicitly notes that the university “respects the Constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.” While the policy recognizes that “[c]ivility and mutual respect are important values,” and calls upon Emory’s constituents to consider these values, it makes clear that these values “do not limit the rights protected by this Policy.”
Further, the Emory Law Student Handbook recognizes “that the educational process of our institution requires diverse forms of open expression – including freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, activism, and assembly,” and “affirms the rights of members of the community to assemble, demonstrate peaceably, respectfully express views on controversial social and political issues and engage in any other activities that are protected by the University Respect for Open Expression Policy.” This policy notably applies to students, and student groups specifically, providing that: “The University shall not deny recognition to an organization because of disagreement with its mission or the viewpoints that it represents.” Likewise, the policy states that “[e]xpression that communicates a viewpoint, regardless of form, is protected as long as it does not violate the guidelines of this Policy. This includes protest, dissent, and any other communicative activity, whether or not it occurs in the context of a Meeting or Event.”
This policy notably applies to students, and student groups specifically, providing that: “The University shall not deny recognition to an organization because of disagreement with its mission or the viewpoints that it represents.”19 Likewise, the policy states that “[e]xpression that communicates a viewpoint, regardless of form, is protected as long as it does not violate the guidelines of this Policy. This includes protest, dissent, and any other communicative activity, whether or not it occurs in the context of a Meeting or Event.”
Emory is a private university, and doesn’t have to abide by the First Amendment. However, once it guarantees certain rights to its students, abrogating those rights is the violation of a contract. I’m confident that the Emory Free Speech Forum will prevail.
I think that Coyne’s Mandate of having every entering university student take a brief course on freedom of speech, must also now have a subsection, specifying that offense, or “harm” is NOT a reason for limiting speech.