How protected is free speech at Colby College?
The current state of freedom of speech and expression on college campuses is broken. Increasingly, America’s colleges and universities have retreated from their historical position as bastions of free speech to become some of the most insular and least tolerant institutions in our society.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan group dedicated to defending college students’ constitutional rights, roughly 9 in 10 American colleges restrict free speech on campus. Of the institutions studied, 28.5 percent received a “red light” rating from FIRE, meaning their policies “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.
The erosion of free speech is becoming more acceptable with each new generation. A Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of millennials, the primary population on college campuses, believe the government should be able to prevent individuals from making offensive statements in public, while 58 percent believed it should not be prevented. In contrast, only 12 percent of the Silent Generation, 24 percent of Baby Boomers and 27 percent of Generation X believed such speech should be prevented by the government.
But the problem doesn’t end there. Even when explicit policies don’t prevent students from exercising their free speech rights, campuses often nurture an environment in which new or controversial ideas are unwelcome and discouraged. By empowering government education officials to silence speech, no matter its perception, we erode our founding principles and stifle the discussions that allow our society to grow and prosper. If education is the vehicle of human progress, true academic freedom and open inquiry must be its twin engines.
What needs to be fixed at Colby College?
Since they operate without direct government control, private institutions are subject to some different legal standards on free speech than public universities. Despite this, many of these institutions brand themselves as friendly to the First Amendment. Some of Maine’s private institutions of higher learning, like Colby College, have received “red light” ratings from FIRE for maintaining at least one policy that explicitly limit students’ freedom of expression.
FIRE gives Colby College a “red light” rating because its policy on harassment is overly broad and could be used to suppress speech. According to the policy, harassment is defined as any unwelcome, hostile remarks, including spoken or written remarks. Under this definition, harassment can be almost anything, including constitutionally-protected speech. In addition, the institution’s bias reporting system encourages students to report one another for being involved in perceived “bias incidents” on campus.
The school defines a “bias incident” as “a behavior or act – verbal, written, or physical – which is personally directed against or targets an individual or group based on perceived or actual characteristics such as race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, disability, veteran status, or age. Bias incidents may be engaged in intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, we may express unconscious bias in ways that are harmful to others without realizing that we are doing so.”
As noted by FIRE, this definition itself wouldn’t be so troubling if not for the other issues associated with the institution’s broad policies which can be used to restrict free speech. While these incidents should certainly be condemned by the public, the college itself should not interfere with speech, even if it is perceived as biased or offensive. An exhaustive list of the flaws within Colby College’s speech-related policies can be found here.
To foster an educational environment most conducive to free expression, student groups, including student government organizations, should take action to push school administrators to revise these policies. This can include hosting free speech-focused events on campus or advancing a resolution within student government that adopts the University of Chicago statement or calls on the school to patch the holes within its student conduct code that have been exposed by FIRE. Individuals associated with the institution can also visit FIRE’s website to take action.