FIRE’S Top Ten “Winners” in the War Against Free Speech

          Here in America, the danger to free expression is beginning to be greatest where it should be most defended, that is to say, within the walls of the academy.

~Salman Rushdie, 2015

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) just issued its 4th Annual Top 10 List for “threats to free speech on campus.”

As Kirsten Powers said of the list, “Read it and weep.”  I read it, and not only because my college made the list for a case I’m all too familiar with, but because my own experience introduced me to FIRE’s work supporting free speech across the nation.

Sadly, there is enough free-expression suppression going on in our institutions of higher learning to keep FIRE busy for decades – far too many administrators, faculty & students treat the U.S. Constitution as if it was something they dimly remember from a boring high school fiction class.  Taken as whole, this year’s Top Ten list makes an excellent case for regarding higher education as a very expensive absurdist play.  As for weeping, peruse the list for yourself and see if Powers isn’t onto something.

The utter stupidity of the knee-jerk “I’m offended” reactions is stunning.  An artist at the University of Iowa set up a temporary art installation – a statue of a robed KKK wizard made out of a collage of newspaper articles covering racial violence from 1908-2010 – and students instantly assumed his “statement art” was making a statement celebrating racism rather than decrying it. This is rather like seeing a cross from the highway and assuming whoever put it there is a fan of crucifixion.

Instead of being embarrassed by their faux pas, the intolerant students demanded that the statue be whisked away out of sight, and so it was.  The administration soothed them predictably, assuring offended students that their campus had “no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays.” Further, UI President Sally Mason made a public apology to students who felt “terrorized” by the artwork and for U.I.’s failure to provide a “respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment.”  U.I. even allowed “victimized” students to put off exams and other work.

And pretty much anything terrorizes college students these days.  Ever gone to a birthday party at Chevy’s and taken home a sombrero?  You might want to bury it quietly in the backyard on a moonless night.  If caught, don’t be surprised if you, like the ADPi sorority at Cal-State Fullerton, find yourself coordinating a mandatory training session covering “cultural competencies and diversity.”  Members of the sorority were so sentenced after committing the grievous sin of serving tacos at their “Taco Tuesday” recruiting event, while wearing “sombreros and other Mexican garb.”

What’s next?  Will just liking tacos make us guilty of dietary aggression?  Could I utter the words “Spaghetti Western” without being hauled off to get my cultural competencies rearranged — or will I get a pass because I’m half Italian?  Perhaps only my Irish half will require “re-education.”  So . . . is it offensive if I set out a baked potato buffet on top of my Irish linen tablecloth, or should I switch it out for a more neutral tablecloth first?

And could someone please explain to me how it is “sensitive” to FORCE rogue students or faculty to take sensitivity training whose sole purpose is to make their opinions conform to campus-sanctified PC opinion?   “All-inclusive” is clearly short for “all-who-believe-exactly-what-we-believe-inclusive.”  Those of you who don’t toe the line need to be excluded and punished, even for the way you dress off campus:  Such demands should be recognized for what they are:  sanctioned bullying.

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff argues, colleges “not only fall short on promises of free expression and academic freedom but openly suppress constitutionally protected speech on campus by using tools such as speech codes to shut down forms of expression that might be uncomfortable, disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the campus community.”

I remember sitting, decades ago, in a college philosophy class and hearing “I think; therefore I am.”  But “thinking” is just so . . .  passé.  Too many seem to have embraced a new version asserting their own existence: “I am; therefore I’m offended.  Placate me.”  Academia talks the talk of “diversity,” and while it works hard to bring in employees and students who LOOK different on the outside, it seems dedicated to producing Stepford students and faculty who think exactly alike on all the de rigueur PC isms of the moment.

And my college?  Modesto Junior College stopped student Robert Van Tuinen from passing out free copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day.  Months later, after paying a $50,000 settlement to Van Tuinen, the unrepentant Chancellor wrote an op-ed in the local paper asserting that he wasn’t prevented from handing out the Constitutions after all – i.e., don’t believe your lyin’ eyes.  You can watch the video here – but if it brings back horrible memories of the awful absurdist play your high school teacher made you sit through, don’t complain.  This is your official Trigger Warning.

Once Upon a Time, Place and Manner . . .


by Leslie Beggs

Colleges and universities have been raking in the negative PR of late, and not just because the lousy job market has left grads and their parental units staggering under the huge college loan debt typically handed out with their diplomas.  There’s also growing evidence that while diplomas specify the recipient’s major subject area, too many students have picked up concurrent shadow degrees in the up-and-coming field of Intolerance, hence the rude trend of disinviting graduation guest speakers.

Apparently, higher education leaves them in such a fragile emotional state that they dare not risk hearing from anyone who doesn’t meet their 100% organically-certified ideological purity standards. This is no surprise given that the once lush groves of academe have withered down to mostly one species of left-leaning cacti – and a prickly one at that.  Academic freedom and free speech currently are about as welcome on campuses as a mink coat at a PETA convention.

We’ve experienced the new era of hyper-regulated speech up close and in person here at Modesto Junior College, where my husband has taught since 1991.  Last fall he spotted a video in which a college student is stopped by a campus security officer from passing out free booklets to passersby.  The freebie?  Copies of the U.S. Constitution.  The date?  September 17th, Constitution Day.  The video, now with over 240,000 views, is what is known in the PR world as “bad optics.”

As my husband peered closer at the ludicrous story – and believe me, it takes a lot to divert him from an online Scrabble battle — he recognized a familiar face.  “Hey – that’s my student!”  Rob Van Tuinen, following a six-year stint in the Army, had decided it would be a good idea to start a Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) Chapter on campus while pursuing his degree.

But Van Tuinen  quickly learned that he was not at liberty to promote a club celebrating our unique American liberties because he had violated MJC’s “Time, Place & Manner” Policy, which governs the conditions under which “free” speech enterprises may be allowed to occur on our campus.  Van Tuinen had not filled out the Limited Public Forum Request Form  five business days in advance, had not been granted permission, and worse still, was just standing willy-nilly on the sidewalk offering U.S. Constitutions to whoever walked by, instead of confining himself to the tiny “free speech” area, a concrete stage off the beaten path.  Fortunately, he was smart enough to operate his smartphone camera and capture his run-ins with MJC’s irony-impaired staff.

The "Free Speech" Stage

The “Free Speech” Stage

When national news media picked up his story, MJC deservedly found itself a magnet for ridicule and attempted damage control through its own social media:

. . . (YCCD) colleges have free speech areas on campus for activities such as distributing material on campus.  In addition, people can distribute material in the areas generally available to students and the community as long as they don’t “disrupt the orderly operation of the college.”  In the case of the YouTube video, it does not appear that the student was disrupting the orderly operation of the college.  Therefore, we are looking into the matter . . .“

~ MJC Facebook page, Sept. 19th, 2013

On Sept 22nd, President Jill Stearns took her case to the local newspaper, which paired her column next to one I had written on the same topic. She complained about the media coverage and regretted not MJC’s treatment of Van Tuinen, but the media’s treatment of MJC. Her lament that people who were calling to complain “have no interest in the fact that we carve out designated free speech areas” to minimize “disruption” only confirmed the suspicion that she still did not understand that there is nothing free about speech that must be approved by officialdom, granted an appointment, and then relegated to a tiny area.

By September 27th, Stearns took a more conciliatory tone in a press release.  However, MJC’s allegedly “comprehensive review” — which somehow did not include talking to Rob Van Tuinen – had found the usual go-to excuse whenever bad policies are caught behaving badly:  a misunderstanding:

We deeply regret this misunderstanding. College staff have been provided the policy and procedure for review and follow-up training is planned to further ensure that clear and accurate information is provided in the future.

~MJC President Jill Stearns, News Release, Sept 27th,2013

Note the subtle scapegoating of the staff – why else would they need follow-up training unless they had screwed up a perfectly fine free-speech policy1 by giving Van Tuinen confusing and inaccurate information? Her statement also noted that a formal apology had been sent to the student, so I asked Van Tuinen what he thought of it.  He hadn’t seen the press release and had heard nothing about an apology.2

Two days later, it arrived in his mailbox.  Sticking to the same narrative as the press release, Stearns did not apologize for MJC’s anti-First Amendment speech controls, but for “the lack of clear communication regarding distribution of materials on campus . . . “

Although Van Tuinen appreciated the apology, he wasn’t buying the “misunderstanding” narrative, probably because he had read the “Free Speech” Guidelines which Administrative Specialist Christine Serrano can be seen handing him in the video.  He knew that both the security officer who stopped him and Serrano had enforced the Guidelines exactly as written.  If anything, they could teach the follow-up training that Stearns had promised.

The non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which serves as a national watchdog protecting free speech rights on college campuses, wasn’t buying it either. FIRE’s Peter Bonilla had already sent a letter to President Stearns detailing the many sins committed against the First Amendment by MJC’s speech code.  He also offered absolution by volunteering to aid MJC in rewriting it – for free.   MJC’s leadership, however, wasn’t interested in free.  (FIRE tells me they have two people on staff who help colleges across the country right their speech code wrongs.)

Van Tuinen had little faith that MJC’s “ongoing” policy review process would actually go anywhere.  He decided to sue to get the speech rules changed to conform to the U.S. Constitution, which is, as he can be heard arguing in the video, “the highest law in the land” – as if that might matter.  With the help of FIRE, his attorneys filed suit twenty-four days after his initial run-in with MJC’s speech code enforcers.

Although he eventually prevailed in getting the Constitution-compliant policies he wanted, settling out of court in February, the continuing resistance of MJC’s leaders to admit they ever abridged Van Tuinen’s First Amendment freedoms is troubling . . . and a little weird.   Some would argue that because Stearns apologized and settled out of court, that whatever protestations MJC leaders made in the aftermath should be ignored. It’s over and done with.  But what is not known widely is that there were retaliatory measures taken against faculty who disputed the party-line – a story that hopefully can be told another day.*

But beyond those retaliations, the way MJC’s leaders tried to conceal how restrictive their speech code really was – using a carefully crafted brew of misleading talking points and legalese — ought to give pause to those who just want to move on. I can’t, because I love MJC and I hate what’s happened to it.  Three generations of my family have gone here: my father in the 50’s, I in the 70’s, my sons after me and a slew of other family members, some currently attending or working here.  Our college has many great teachers and staff, a world-class observatory and a lovely tree-laden campus.  But the events depicted in the video should never have happened – and the leaders who created the toxic micro-managing culture in which they did happen have yet to admit they erred in any way.

Instead, MJC has continued to argue that Van Tuinen could have passed out his materials beyond the free speech stage, since he wasn’t being “disruptive.”  During the initial weeks of attempted damage control, every statement mentioning those other permissible campus places for free speech used the exact same phrase:  “the areas generally available to students and the community.”  Sounds natural, right?

Mom, can I go out and play? 

Sure, honey, you can go out and play in the areas generally available to children and the neighborhood.

This quirk of repeated exact wording caught my attention, so I dug a little deeper into MJC’s Time, Place & Manner policy for the East Campus and found the fine print: “the area(s) generally available to students and the community is designated as the stage area Northeast section [sic] of the quad.”  The Guidelines likewise identify the “stage area northeast of the Quad” as the lone East Campus “area(s) generally available to students and the community.” They also specified that the distribution of printed matter “shall take place only within the area(s) generally available to students and the community,”  i.e., the stage.  Don’t even think about wandering around campus offering Constitutions to any passersby who might accept one – that would be anarchy.

So there you have it:  the free speech area and “the areas generally available to students and the community” are different names for the same place:  the concrete stage.  Every time MJC officials protested that in addition to the stage, which was unavailable, Van Tuinen could have also passed out free Constitutions from “the areas generally  . . . “  they were really saying that although he couldn’t use the stage on Constitution Day, he could have used the stage; likewise, although he was stopped from handing out Constitutions, MJC claims he wasn’t stopped.  This is the sort of mutually contradictory nonsense Captain Kirk would use to fry evil supercomputers in Star Trek.

If it was obvious to you that “the areas generally available  . . .” consisted of a smallish concrete stage, and nothing but this stage, please raise your hand.    If this doublespeak definition makes your head hurt, you are beginning to understand the Orwellian word games being played here.

Who gave the higher-ups at MJC the idea that the First Amendment ought to be house-trained, collared and stuck on a short leash to a concrete stage?  And where did they get the notion to use wording in such a deceptive way that they could appear to fully support expansive free speech rights while failing to mention that their own fine-print definition shrank it down to a few square feet of concrete on the east campus?

What the press release giveth, the fine print taketh away.

There was no misunderstanding here, and no “lack of clear communication,” between Van Tuinen and the employees who stopped him on Constitution Day, as Stearns claimed in her apologies.  It’s obvious that the security guard and Serrano knew the Guidelines and were well-versed in how to approach a rogue free-speecher.

No, what the YouTube video reveals is not poor communication about good policies, but accurate communication about bad policies.  That they were changed via Van Tuinen’s lawsuit is the good news.

The bad news is that the Constitution Day episode reveals that what we have here at MJC is not a failure to communicate, but a concerted effort by administration to miscommunicate.

Chancellor Joan Smith says that “MJC cherishes free speech and always will.” I’m thinking we should start digging through the 500 or so pages of policies and procedures to locate the fine-print definition of “cherish.”


*Go here to see more of the story in the video that FIRE released on June 25th, 2014 about Van Tuinen’s experience — Quarantining the Constitution: The Fight for Free Speech on a California Campus

Here’s a great article by Tim Cushing of TechDirt, discussing the all-campus email that Dr. Holly sent out in support of Rob Van Tuinen.


1Dying to get a rough idea of how academic bureaucracies come to have their reams of rules and regs? Boards of Trustees set district policies – many of which are mandated by their parent bureaucracies at the state and federal levels: the state chancellor’s office, Ed. Codes, etc.   In this task, boards are often provided templates from the Community College League of California (CCLC), which informs trustees which provisions are legally required, and which are recommended.

Relevant constituency groups have their input, and then the chancellor submits the proposed policy to the board, which either leaves it as is or tinkers with it and then approves it after a second reading. The chancellor then creates the specific procedures which enact the policy.    The Guidelines given to students filling out the request form to use the free speech area, were yet another iteration of the Time, Place & Manner policy, and of mysterious parentage.

Revision of existing policies typically occurs when Ed. Code changes require alterations.  Ed. Code 76120 requires that colleges have some sort of Time, Place & Manner policy.  However, these policies are not, despite multiple attempts to the contrary, supposed to supersede the First Amendment and applicable case law.

2In none of MJC’s statements is Rob Van Tuinen mentioned by name, with the exception of the post-settlement Bee opinion piece by Smith.  He was always “the student” in “the incident.”  Another subtle way to tell him, besides not talking to him when investigating “the incident,” just how much he really matters . . .

Yay — Another Diss to the Tyranny of Grad DISinvitations

Dean Ryan’s letter contains precisely the advocacy for robust debate that FIRE hopes to see from college and university administrators.

~Susan Kruth, FIRE

If only Dean Ryan were the rule, rather than the exception . . .

Read the article here.

FIRE’s Latest on the ‘Disinvitation Season’

How about we have no graduation speakers at all, no graduation ceremony, and just mail you your diploma? That way you’ll be freed from the horror of hearing anything from anyone who might have done anything at any time in their past which you might disapprove of and/or who might have the temerity to say something you disagree with. And if your diploma arrives in any way folded, spindled, or mutilated, consider it an apt metaphor for your university-educated brain.

Read the article here.

Demanding Intolerance


Kudos to Mike Rowe (Discovery Channel host) for this great response to a woman who was incensed by his appearances as a guest on Glenn Beck’s show.  Her diatribe about the “horrible and psychotic” Beck is akin to the sentiments following the Being Liberal post that I wrote about yesterday in  Awkward?  

It’s interesting  — we used to hear demands from the Left  for “tolerance” and now they’re trying to keep their “own” in line by demanding that they be “intolerant” of the boogeymen/women of the Right.  I’ve never seen Rowe’s show Dirty Jobs, so I don’t know the extent to which we might disagree on core issues, but he’s obviously a fair guy and one who still possesses a rarer and rarer commodity these days:  goodwill.

But the guts of your question – even without all the name-calling and acrimony – reveal the essence of what’s broken in our country. You want to know “how I can associate” with someone you don’t like? The short answer is, how can I not? How are we ever going to accomplish anything in this incredibly divisive time if we associate only with people that we don’t disagree with?





Just saw a post on Facebook from “Being Liberal” which thanks “Americans Against the Republican Party” for a photo of a woman looking deeply distressed and forlorn as she stares at her computer screen, with this caption:


That moment when you connect with an old friend from high school.  And you discover that she’s a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Fox News.

It’s got over 43,000 “likes” and is pushing 9600 “shares,” and it’s coming from the very crowd that had a national hissy fit when Limbaugh said he hoped Barack Obama would “fail,” even though he’d made it clear he thought the president’s policies would hurt the country if they succeeded.

Now we’re in the midst of that hurt, with too many part-time jobs and too few full-time careers; huge national debt; record numbers of people on unemployment and/or some form of welfare assistance;  a surfeit of scandals including Fast & Furious,  Benghazi, and an IRS which targeted political opponents; a Justice Dept. which taps journalists; foreign adversaries who respect us less, allies who are angry over NSA surveillance; and a signature piece of legislation that’s proven wildly successful at getting people dumped off the health insurance plans they were assured they “can keep,” but  features a three-and-a-half year in-the making website that is about as effective as an Etch-A-Sketch at enrolling them in new health care plans.

A quick sampling of the comments following the post:

Heck, I’ve unfriended family members because I couldn’t take what they were sharing!!!

Oy! So true… AND, Glenn Beck. The worst!

I have family that are die hard Republicans. They swear by Fox News and all of the right-wing pundits. Thank God I only have to be around them once a year at Thanksgiving.

Ugh….pretty much my entire “HS” list on fb. Most of which are “do not show in newsfeed” or blocked.

I have quite a few liberal friends and relatives on Facebook, and for the record, I’ve never blocked anyone because I didn’t agree with their posts, much less “unfriended” someone because they loved MSNBC or Bill Maher or even posted photos from “Americans Against the Republican Party”  featuring condescending captions.

And yet, Being Liberal thinks my political views are unbelievably embarrassing?

What’s embarrassing is that the same people who are always lecturing the rest of us about “inclusion” and  “tolerance” and  “diversity”  seem blissfully unaware of their own tendency to be  non-inclusive, non-tolerant and non-diverse, ideologically speaking.

More importantly,  I believe they’re mistaken about human nature and thus miscalculate the likely effects of various policies or initiatives.  We subscribe to very different worldviews and place our faith in very different objects or institutions.  But there seems to be less and less mutual respect these days between people who differ philosophically, and Being Liberal’s post serves as a  snapshot in social-networking time, illustrating one of the main reasons:  the Left thinks the Right is too stupid to be worth listening to.

We’ve been “deleted” from the conversation about what ails our country and what might help it, because we listen to and admire the wrong people, and this, you see, cannot be tolerated.

And that’s not awkward; it’s sad.

It All Depends on What the Meaning of “Free” Is

Check out my opinion piece below that appeared in The Modesto Bee (September 22, 2013), on MJC’s Constitution Day fiasco. You can also read  MJC President Jill Stearns’ very different take on the incident.

The YouTube video of Rob Van Tuinen being prevented from passing out  free copies of the Constitution sparked a national news story, and hopefully, an ongoing debate about “the inherent contradiction of free-speech codes.”

It All Depends on What the Meaning of “Free” Is


Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .

~from the 1st Amendment, U. S. Constitution

The Colleges of the District are non-public forums, except for those areas designated as ‘free speech areas’, which are limited public forums.  The Chancellor shall enact such administrative procedures as are necessary to reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of the exercise of free expression in the limited public forums.

~ Policy 3900, Time, Place & Manner,

YCCD Policies and Administrative Procedures

Modesto is once again in the national news, only this time it isn’t for topping the car-jacking list – it’s for a YouTube video showing MJC student Rob Van Tuinen being prevented from giving away free copies of the Constitution on Sept. 17th.  The irony of stopping him on the very holiday which celebrates the enumeration of our freedoms, including freedom of speech, apparently escaped both the security officer who intercepted Van Tuinen about ten minutes into his freebie giveaway, and administrator Christine Serrano, who took refuge in a binder of rules, clinging to her mantra of  “ . . . time, place and manner . . .”

Van Tuinen is the president of a new chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, an organization which claims on its website to be “the largest, most active, and fastest-growing pro-liberty organization on America’s college campuses.”

MJC seems rather less “pro-liberty.”  It requires those wishing to commit an act of free speech to fill out MJC’s “Limited Public Forum Request Form” and allow five business days for “processing.”  If permission is granted, then the student or group is given a particular date and time in which to transact their free speech “rights,” but only in a designated “free speech” zone, which Serrano described as “over there . . .  that little cement area.” Like the security officer, she patronizingly assured Van Tuinen that she wasn’t telling him he couldn’t –he just had to follow the guidelines.   Oh – and she’d need a copy of his I.D., too.

She suggested that Sept 20th and 27th were open.  Not surprising– both are Fridays, the one day when students can actually get a parking space close to campus because only a few classes meet.  That means Van Tuinen could hang out in the “cement area” and wave at the few students who come within view.

Finally Serrano asked Van Tuinan why he wanted to pass out copies that day.

“’Cause it’s Constitution Day.”


MJC issued a statement saying that it’s investigating the incident, but admits that since it doesn’t appear as if the student was being disruptive, he ought to have been able to offer materials in any campus areas “generally available to students and the community.”  Furthermore, “The administration of the YCCD supports the peaceful distribution of the Constitution and other materials on campus, which is why our colleges support Constitution Day with activities each year.”  This is disingenuous at best – the law creating Constitution Day mandates that all educational institutions receiving federal dollars provide an educational program about the Constitution’s history, on the holiday.

YCCD Board member Anne DeMartini  sees the whole episode as  “extremely embarrassing.  I’m constantly struggling to get the college community to be more supportive of diversity of thought . . . we need to revisit this policy.”  She also explained that in the past the college has had to try to balance the desire to promote free speech with the desire to protect students from graphic photos of aborted fetuses, for instance.  “We have childcare on campus,” she pointed out, “and not all our students are over 18.”

I understand her concern, but the video illustrates the inherent contradiction of “free speech codes.” There is nothing free about them, although one wonders if Van Tuinen would have run into the same resistance if he’d stuck a free condom on every copy.  In this age of political correctness, campuses are often required by state law to have speech codes, and organizations like YAL have sprung up to expose them as unconstitutional, and as the video shows, often ridiculous.  The Constitution covers giving out not just Constitutions, but also obnoxious material given out by “troublemakers.”  Our founders apparently thought that we could take it – that arguments should be won or lost on their merits, and that we didn’t need to be protected from opinions that we might not like.

Unfortunately, MJC’s administration has given in to the bureaucratic tendency to micromanage the law-abiding.  One hopes that they will revisit the issue and come up with rules — along the lines of “not yelling fire in a crowded theater” — that actually are “reasonable,” a word used in MJC’s policy without apparent understanding of its meaning.

It’s sad that the video didn’t capture any authority figure who encountered Van Tuinen and had the good sense to say, “Hey, you’ve got a copy of the constitution there?  Can I have one?  Thanks.”

Beggs was one of the first two visiting editors, and blogs at