If you follow higher education news, you know that free speech on college campuses has been an ongoing issue. It’s hard to imagine what could make the situation worse.

It turns out the COVID pandemic is one such thing.

In a January quick take, I pointed to a report from The College Fix about First Amendment experts who said that COVID is adversely affecting free speech on campus:

First Amendment experts say university officials use COVID as excuse to stifle free speech

The College Fix recently spoke to a handful of experts on free speech about the obstacles students faced in the fall semester.

In August 2020, The Fix spoke to many of these same experts about their concerns about how coronavirus restrictions would limit freedom of expression.

They noted at the time that with the return of school and the issue of COVID-19 there was an increased possibility that the First Amendment rights of students would be infringed upon by university officials.

Their predictions came true, the experts said.

For one, colleges have frequently applied their COVID guidelines in discriminatory ways, said Kimberly Hermann, general counsel for the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

“We saw many schools ban all speech activities on and off campus—but then administrators turned around and allowed, supported, and even marched with students protesting race issues,” Hermann told The Fix in December.

“College administrators upheld the speech rights of some students, while punishing other students for trying to exercise those same rights,” she said. “This is unconstitutional and SLF has worked tirelessly to stop it.”

In August, she had predicted as much.

“The threat to students’ free speech, freedom of association, and privacy on college campuses has never been greater than it is today,” Hermann said at the time.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has published a report linking the pandemic to threats to free speech on campus. From the FIRE blog:

Zoom and gloom: Campus dissent silenced amidst pandemic

As the pandemic cleared out campuses and quieted once-bustling classrooms, experts at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education expected censorship to take a backseat to the health crisis. But as cases of COVID-19 took off, so too did case submissions from students and faculty nationwide alleging rights violations.

A new report from FIRE shows how censorship spread during the pandemic, and how the tools higher education used to keep students informed, such as Zoom, aided in silencing dissenting voices.

“One clear lesson from the pandemic is that censorship can have a serious negative impact on public health,” said FIRE Director of Targeted Advocacy Sarah McLaughlin, author of COVID on Campus: The Pandemic’s Impact on Student and Faculty Speech Rights. “COVID-19 requires extensive and, in some cases, unprecedented measures to protect public health. Censorship isn’t one of them.”

Colleges abused their authority in three principal ways:

1. Issuing unconstitutional gag orders to silence criticism of institutions, including forbidding resident assistants from speaking openly about their safety concerns when they felt institutional policies put their health at risk.

2. Censoring speech related directly to COVID-19, including forbidding faculty doctors fighting the pandemic from speaking to the media.

3. Applying campus measures in the name of public health that threaten individual rights, including tracking attendees of private meetings, forcing students to agree to public health pledges, and blaming the pandemic for censorship of unrelated speech, including — puzzlingly — a virtual play about a gay Charlie Brown.

Fire’s report offers specific examples:

University of California, Santa Barbara: It didn’t take long after COVID‑19 shutdowns began for a campus censorship threat to emerge. At UCSB, though, it wasn’t administrators who threatened faculty for speaking out — it was online testing service ProctorU. On March 13, the UCSB Faculty Association Board expressed “serious concern” about the use of ProctorU, alleging that the service’s privacy policy “potentially implicates the university into becoming a surveillance tool.” Less than a week later, ProctorU’s attorney responded with a blustering letter making a number of claims, including defamation, copyright, and trademark, against the Faculty Association for its criticism — and this letter was sent to state and federal prosecutors, too.

Wayne State University Law School: FIRE wrote to Wayne State University Law School in July over concerns about retaliation against students pressing for bar exam accommodations during COVID‑19. Earlier that month, a law school administrator emailed the graduating class in response to students advocating for the option of a “diploma privilege,” which would allow qualifying graduates to pursue admission to the State Bar of Michigan without sitting for the Michigan Bar exam. The email warned, “[W]hile you have every right to criticize the bar exam, the Board of Law Examiners, or the State Bar of Michigan online, it may not be a smart strategy for passing Character & Fitness with ease.”

University of Missouri: As students at some campuses began to return to in-person studies and dorms last summer, student employees hoped to sound the alarm about their safety concerns. But at the University of Missouri, they were stymied by administrative warnings or policies limiting their ability to speak out. Speaking to the Columbia Missourian, residential assistants anonymously accused university practices of “needlessly put[ting] them and others at risk” amidst the pandemic. According to the Missourian, the RAs required anonymity because they were not “authorized” to speak about the issue to the media, and a “strict media policy for Residential Life employees” had been “laid out” to them in a meeting.

This short video goes with the report:

As we’ve pointed out countless times, it’s astonishing that one of our biggest problems with free speech as a nation is taking place in our institutions of higher education.

Featured image via YouTube.


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