At Quinnipiac, like all private universities, there are rules in the handbook that set its school policy apart from that of public universities. Depending on how actively the university enforces these policies, students may not realize their lack of rights–rights that would be guaranteed at public schoos.
One organization dedicated to battling such situations is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). According to William Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE is a “non-profit organization dedicated to defending and preserving individual rights and core constitutional liberties on America’s campuses, both public and private.”
Creeley spoke in front of two dozen students at the Law School’s Grand Courtroom on Nov. 18 in an effort to raise awareness about problems in school policies, including a discussion on Quinnipiac’s current policy. The event was sponsored by the Quinnipiac Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).
Quinnipiac is currently rated a “Red Light” under FIRE’s Spotlight database. A university is given a red light rating if they have at least one policy which both clearly and substantially restricts speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Quinnipiac’s red light rating mainly stems from its harassment policies. Creeley cites that the phrases in the Student Handbook “interference with a person’s customary or usual affairs” and “mental distress” are too vague to specifically define.
In attendance was Student Government President Louis Venturelli, who learned from Creeley that the harassment policy did not follow the Supreme Court precedent.
“Perhaps this is an area in which the Student Government can work with the office of Student Affairs on implementing proper change,” Venturelli said. “However, it’s important to note that those who author the handbook truly care about the well-being of our fellow peers – both the victim and the fair justice of the alleged perpetrator.”
Creeley stressed that one problem on campuses was that some students felt they had the right to not be offended, which results in the restriction of free speech.
“We have a saying at FIRE, ‘If you haven’t been offended in four years of college, give your money back,'” Creeley said.
FIRE coordinates litigations to pursue precedent-setting court decisions in defense of student rights. Since its creation in 1999, FIRE has won over 160 public victories at over 100 universities, and all sponsored litigations have won. However, most of their accomplishments are won without the litigation process, with most of the victories coming through extensive dialogue with college administrations.
“The vast majority of private schools make extensive promises of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and due process in disciplinary hearings to their students in promotional materials like student handbooks and the extensive mailing students get before they enroll,” Creeley said. “The problem is a lot of these private schools don’t actually live up to those promises made to their students when the rubber meets the proverbial road.
“FIRE’s goal at private schools is to make them live up to what they’ve promised their students, and sometimes that involves public shame, sometimes that involves pressure from alumni groups, and sometimes it involves the New York Times editorial page getting involved like it did at QU last year.”
In FIRE’s 2009 Speech Codes report, 270 of the 364 schools, or 74.2 percent, reviewed received a red light. In addition, 78 colleges received a yellow light grade (policies subject to interpretation), while a scant 8 schools received a green light rating. In order to get a green light, FIRE must find no policies written by the school that restrict freedom of speech.
Most of the students in attendance represented YAL. One of these members, junior class representative and YAL treasurer Nick Rossetti was glad to see FIRE bring their knowledge to Quinnipiac.
“It’s nice to meet someone face-to-face that can answer questions about what students can and cannot do,” Rossetti said.
Rossetti is currently working with his ad-hoc committee in order to start discussions with the administration in hopes of drafting a Declaration of Student Rights for the University.