Where’s the FIRE?

In apparent preparation for Monday’s good times at Temple University, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) seems to be on the campaign trail in support of HR177, the so-called “academic freedom” witch hunt. Today’s (Harrisburg) Patriot News features an op-ed by Charles Mitchell, a program officer at FIRE.

Speech codes make universities intolerant

Charles is absolutely right. University speech policies that restrict student speech, force students to hold protests in one 10’x10′ patch of grass on campus, etc. violate our most basic freedoms. In fact, nationally, the ACLU has advised and defended students on this issue.
ACLU of Virginia asks Hampton University to accomodate student free speech on campus
George Mason University drops charges against student arrested for protesting campus military recruiters

During a recent presentation at Shippensburg University on free speech, ACLU-PA staff attorney Paula Knudsen used the Bair v. Shippensburg University, a FIRE case, to highlight free speech on campus. Shippensburg’s policy included provisions that stated, “The expression of one’s beliefs should be communicated in a manner that does not provoke, harass, intimidate or harm another,” and, “No person shall participate in acts of intolerance that demonstrate malicious intent toward others.” The court found in favor of the plaintiff in a decision decided by none other than Judge John E. Jones III.

But here’s the rub: HR177 is not about university speech codes. It’s about certain legislators attempting to smoke out faculty whose political views don’t line up with their own. In fact, The Penn Stater, the magazine of the PSU alumni association, features a cover story this month on this issue. (Unfortunately, it’s not available online.) Reporter Dan Morrell sets up the story with anecdotal evidence of possible discrimination by faculty and a recap of the legislature’s action and then delivers the punchline in the story’s second-to-last page:

(T)he committee asked Penn State to submit a list of all of the complaints it had received in the last five years that dealt with the issues of academic freedom. In a university of more than 80,000 students, during a period when more than 177,000 courses were taught, only 13 complaints had been filed.

Where’s the fire? There is no fire. HR177 is a solution in search of a problem.