Freedom of speech is perhaps the most widely embraced political ideal in American history. It was singled out for protection from the federal government as early as the First Amendment, extended to the states and localities by the 14th Amendment, and is now revered as a key characteristic that differentiates free nations from oppressive regimes.
But protecting free speech isn't simple. While it's commonly agreed in this country that criticisms of the government, social norms or other powerful institutions must be allowed in order to promote social awareness, growth and individual dignity, we're faced with ideas that are deeply offensive to us.
This year, it's become clear that JMU is a true believer in free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national organization, announced last Tuesday that JMU had "eliminated the last of its speech codes, earning the highest ‘green light' rating for free speech."
FIRE studies university speech codes and gives ratings of "red light," "yellow light" or "green light" for codes that are very restrictive of speech, somewhat restrictive and fully First Amendment compliant, respectively.
JMU joins just 14 other schools nationwide to earn the "green light" rating and is the third school to receive it in Virginia, after the College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia.
Those numbers surprised me. Only 14 universities nationwide have free speech, despite the fact that Constitutional law says all citizens do? First, there's an important distinction to recognize between schools.
Private universities, like Liberty University or the University of Richmond, aren't obligated to protect free speech and may legally have restrictive speech codes for their students. Public universities, like JMU or George Mason University, are a different story.
Public universities are funded by the government and typically run by the states. Because of this, all students are entitled to their First Amendment rights. In any discussion of student rights and freedoms, comparisons between private and public universities are meaningless.
That explains some of it, but still, the vast majority of public universities must be clearly restricting students' speech rights if only 14 schools are "green lights." Oftentimes this happens because schools have policies requiring demonstrations be registered or approved, fliers be in "good taste," or that students may not speak or email potentially offensive comments.
Between the Springfest riot and everything I've read scribbled in bathroom stalls on campus, I'm not surprised that universities sometimes want to restrict things.
It takes a rational, patient and tolerant mind to see the bigger picture, where productive speech is silenced or cooled by policies meant only to make things more orderly.
In light of this, JMU's decision to fully protect its students' rights is even more impressive. We should all commend JMU for removing its restrictive policies and encourage our friends at other schools to fight for their rights as well.
This "green light" rating didn't happen randomly, after all. FIRE, JMU administrators, JMU students and the Office of Judicial Affairs have all worked together, starting in October 2009, to assess and amend JMU's speech code. The process is now complete and our rights are fully intact - and I'm proud to be a Duke because of it.