Is your voice being heard on campus?

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By Nick DAngelo

Perhaps the most famous example of speech suppression in America is the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed by John Adams on July 14, 1798. Forbidding outspoken protest of the federal government, the legislation was controversial in its own time, and remains among those most debated over two centuries later.

Thomas Jefferson was so enraged by the suppression of free speech that he advocated secession from the government of which he served as vice president.

The simple point at issue was that free citizens had, and have, the fundamental right to express criticism of their government. The American public agreed with that belief when they elected Jefferson over Adams in 1800.

When the Alien and Sedition Acts were debated, passed and signed, Union was still an infant institution. Two centuries later, we’re wrapped in some sedition of our own.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, better known as FIRE, has released their 2013 Spotlight on Speech Codes, analyzing how much freedom students in colleges across the country have in speaking out.

Schools are ranked on a “stoplight system,” green for policies which “do not seriously threaten campus expression,” yellow embraces policies that “could be interpreted to suppress protected speech,” and red for any institution which “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” For 2013, Union was ranked red.

FIRE was established in 1998 after Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. The mission of the organization remains to expose and defend “American liberties on behalf of thousands of students and faculty on our nation’s campuses.”

In the 2013 Spotlight on Speech Codes, 305 four-year public institutions were surveyed, along with 104 of the nation’s “most private institutions.” FIRE focuses attention on public universities because private schools are not “legally bound to protect students’ rights to free speech.”

The rubric covers three main categories: Harassment Policies, Policies on Bias and Hate Speech, and Advertised Commitments to Free Expression. In the three separate categories, Union scores all across the board. We rank “green” in our advertised commitment, “yellow/red” in policies on hate speech and “red” in harassment.

We remain in good company, though. Of the 409 total institutions surveyed, 62.1 percent scored “red-light” ratings, among them the Ivy League insitutions of Princeton and Columbia, as well as Tufts University and Fordham University. Only 3.7 percent scored a “green-light” rating.

While the rating is pretty definitive, criterion for the grading is less than obvious. FIRE quotes passages of college guidelines and student handbooks, but does little to explain the harsh scores. The system in and of itself is more than simply vague, which leads this columnist to question the legitimacy.

After writing my weekly column for a year, I’ve had a lot to say about our campus and its administration—and not everything has been praising. While some may have been angry or have felt wrongly targeted, no one has ever told me to stop. In fact, delving into campus policies and administration politics has been encouraged.

Asking questions has always been supported, and time to talk about serious issues has always been given. Our college’s support for free student expression is purely proven by the freedom of its press.

The Concordiensis receives a sizeable budget, free of censorship.

That’s more than we can say for the folks of 1798. Numbers and scores mean little when you have real experience. Freedom of speech exists at Union to the extent that students utilize it.

Instead of relying on written text and crude codes, FIRE should move from behind the desk and actually talk to some students. They’ll probably be surprised.

Perhaps the greatest defender of free speech in American history was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, nominated to the bench by Woodrow Wilson in 1918.

Ironically, it was Brandeis who spoke out against the revitalized sedition and espionage acts utilized by the Wilson administration at the close of World War I.

A decade later, in the famous First Amendment case Whitney v. California, Brandeis wrote: “It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

Legal historian Anthony Lewis notes that this concurring decision was “perhaps the greatest defense of freedom of speech ever written.”

Brandeis got it right. And so did Union College.

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