In 2013, Top Threats to Student Rights Came from the Federal Government

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
December 30, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, December 30, 2013—As 2013 comes to a close, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) looks back on a year that was headlined by dire threats to free speech and student rights on campus. Yet through concerted effort, FIRE was able to win crucial legislative and regulatory victories against those threats while continuing to expand the sphere of the First Amendment and due process on campus.

The year’s top threats to student rights on campus came, unfortunately, from the federal government. Most prominently, in May, the Departments of Education and Justice used a settlement with the University of Montana to attempt to implement what they called a “blueprint” for sexual harassment regulations on campus. This blueprint would have served as a de facto national speech code at nearly every university in America, public and private.

“The federal ‘blueprint’ effort was certainly the gravest threat to free speech on campus in 2013,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff.

After months of activism from FIRE and other organizations, with an assist from Senator John McCain and attention from major media ranging from the Los Angeles Times editorial board to Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator George Will, the new head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) signaled that the government was finally backing away from the idea of the settlement as a national “blueprint,” although OCR has more to do by letting every college in the country know that they will not, in fact, be held to the blueprint’s unconstitutional standards.

Rolling back this regulatory effort was actually FIRE’s second major Washington victory of the year. Thanks in part to FIRE’s advocacy, an attempt to add a provision to the Violence Against Women Act that would permanently write the low “preponderance of the evidence” standard for sexual misconduct cases on campus into federal law was defeated in Congress. A 2011 OCR guidance letter requiring that evidentiary standard is still in place, but FIRE is continuing its efforts to get it withdrawn. Use of this “50.01% likelihood” standard on campus means that students are being officially labeled as rapists by colleges using deficient procedures and marginal evidence—procedures that have led to a rash of lawsuits by the accused against their own universities…