Clear Thinking

I think that that FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, does a really nice job defending speech across the political spectrum on campuses.  I was struck in particular by this post on their blog, about Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a private university in Massachusetts.   Speech rights at private institutions (such as on the job) are often an area where "civil rights" groups trip over themselves.

I thought FIRE did a nice job with its WPI analysis:

as a private institution, WPI is not bound by the U.S. Constitution, and WPI
takes full advantage of that by stripping its students of their First Amendment
rights. WPI doesn't try to hide this fact, either. Unlike many private
universities, its website makes no promises that students will have the
constitutional rights that they enjoy in society at large. Moreover, it prominently
that "[s]tudents enter WPI voluntarily"¦If they do not like some
of the rules, regulations, traditions, and policies of WPI, they do not have to
enter," and
"membership in this particular academic community is freely sought and
freely granted by and to its members, and"¦within this membership group certain
specific behaviors that may be accepted by society in general cannot be accepted
within an academic community without hindering the explicit goals of that
academic community." 
As a private institution, Worcester is acting within its rights: it
advertises its repression and censorship right up front.  WPI doesn't promise
you free speech, and you won't get it. That's why FIRE doesn't rate WPI a "red
light""” when a private university states clearly and consistently that it holds
a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE does not
rate that university. But we still think you should know what to expect when you
get there.

Good for FIRE.  It achnowleges that WPI as a private institution has the right to set its own rules and terms and conditions, as long as those are clear up front.  FIRE doesn't like these rules (I don't particularly either) but it limits itself to speaking out against them, rather than filing legal actions as it might in the case of public universities which, by law and by court precedent, can't place artifical limits on first ammendment rights.


  1. JamesBurns:

    This is a bit of a guess, but I suspect the WPI policy was a response to massive student protests that were occuring in the Spring of 1968.

    On April 23, 1968, student protestors, reaching 700-1000 strong, took over several buildings at Columbia. The students were removed somewhat violently by the NYPD on April 30, 1968.

    In April-May 1968, there were massive student protests in France that turned violent, including on May 6, which was known as "Bloody Monday."

    Also, on April 4, 1968, MLK Jr. was shot, on June 3, 1968, Andy Warhol was shot (okay, not likely to spark protests at WPI), and on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was shot.

    The WPI statement indicates that it was adopted on June 8, 1968, and states taht "the board of trustees formally reiterates that this university offers no sanctuary to any individual or group that condones, advocates, or exercises the taking over of private property or the use of intimidation or physical force."

    Must have been one interesting time to be a university administrator.

  2. BobH:

    But hasn't WPI sacrificed its right to make its own policies by accepting federal funds (see Title IX)?