A brand new report published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has discovered that universities across the country are stifling freedom of speech using coronavirus restrictions.
Over the course of the last year, FIRE, a legal organization that works closely with both students and faculty who think their rights are being infringed upon by universities, has received a very high amount of requests for help. The group is claiming that the reason for the spike was mostly due to how universities were handling the COVID-19 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,” the group 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.
Many other schools have been more forthright about their crackdowns on freedom of speech. Collin College’s leadership called for two of its professors to be booted from the university after their contracts with the school expire. These same two individuals have openly criticized the college over their handling of the pandemic.
Universities have also been clamping down on any kind of speech that is directly related to the illness itself. For example, the University of California system put out “guidance” for faculty and students called, “Equity and Inclusion during COVID-19.” The document actually banned people from using the term “Chinese Virus” or any other word or phrase that they believe could cause “hatred” toward the Asian communities.
This same guide then goes on to tell students they cannot speak negatively about “people, individuals, or groups who may not be in your immediate social circle.”
The FIRE report concludes with a dire warning that while issues concerning free speech are increasing across college campuses, universities are just a small fraction of the larger issues about freedom of speech that are happening in our country beneath the guise of public health.