News and Commentary

Report: Coronavirus Rules Are Stifling Free Speech On Campus

"On campuses across the country, speech and due process rights have been challenged, too, as administrators struggle to respond to the pandemic.”
Academic Hall on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia is seen on November 10, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. The university looks to get things back to normal after the recent protests on campus that lead to the resignation of the school's President and Chancellor on November 9.
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

A new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that universities are stifling free speech under the guise of coronavirus restrictions. 

In the past year, FIRE, a legal organization that works with students and faculty who believe their rights are being stymied by universities, has received an outsized amount of requests for help. The organization claims that a large part of the spike was due to universities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“COVID-19’s consequences for education have not been limited to location, access, or in the University ‘s California, Berkeley’s case, temporary bans on outdoor exercise,” FIRE said in a statement. “On campuses across the country, speech and due process rights have been challenged, too, as administrators struggle to respond to the pandemic.” 

FIRE said that it was fearful of punitive action from COVID-19 policies back in September 2020. The group warned universities to create COVID restrictions that are temporary and tied directly to the threat of public health. “Restrictions or disciplinary actions substantially unrelated to protecting public health should be rejected and reconsidered,” the statement reads. 

According to the report, the predominant themes that emerged from reported cases include censorship of speech related to criticizing institutions, censorship of speech related to COVID-19, and “troubling measures” applied to campuses during the pandemic. The report lists several examples. 

At some universities, campus community members — particularly resident assistants — were told not to speak critically about how the university was handling the pandemic. At the University of Missouri (Mizzou), student employees wanted to sound the alarm about safety concerns when they returned to campus. The administration issued warnings and policies that limited their ability to speak freely. According to the Columbia Missourian, resident assistants that wished to discuss what they viewed as poor COVID policies were not “authorized” to speak about the issue with the media as Residential Life employees had a “strict media policy” laid out for them. 

Other schools are more obvious about their speech crackdowns. This month, Collin College’s leadership called for two professors to be dismissed from the university after their contracts expire. These same two professors openly criticized the college’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Universities have also cracked down on speech directly related to the virus. The University of California system published “guidance” for faculty and students titled, “Equity and Inclusion during COVID-19.” The document banned anyone from using the term “Chinese Virus” or any other term that the university believed could project “hatred” toward Asian communities. The same guide told students that they cannot speak badly about “people, individuals, or groups who may not be in your immediate social circle.”

Mizzou manifested these guidelines with action against alleged “hatred” toward Asian communities. A business school professor at Mizzou was relieved of his teaching duties for cracking a joke about putting a mask on to a Chinese student from Wuhan. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the student never found the joke to be offensive, but the professor was placed on leave and underwent an investigation anyway.  

Some universities’ were more aggressive with their campus coronavirus policies and FIRE claims that some measures “presented threats to individual rights.” At Northeastern University, a student posted a poll asking incoming freshmen “who’s planning on going to/having parties,” with the answer options “hell yeah” and “nah.” Administrators compelled the pollster to hand over the names of the 115 students that responded “hell yeah.” The university threatened to rescind students’ admissions and demanded they provide written affirmation that they would not violate COVID-related rules. 

The report ended with a warning that while free speech issues are growing on college campuses, universities are a mere microcosm of the free speech issues plaguing the nation under the guise of public health. 

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