The government and its administrators or enforcers, such as the police, cannot censor anyone. This includes public colleges that use government funding, such as the college where I teach, for which the administration acts as arms of the government. Private colleges, however, can do whatever they please in terms of censorship. Note, however, that does not exclude anyone from public consequences and opinion about any institution’s censorship. This is particularly relevant in the recent controversy surrounding racist chants by some fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma (UO). The First Amendment exists to protect even the worst of us against mob rule. Even racist insults are considered protected speech in a public space, as long as those insults do not include incitements to physical harm. UO is a public college and so must abide by the First Amendment, so expelling the students involved and shutting down the fraternity are probably not constitutional. Already there is talk of a lawsuit by the fraternity against the university. That’s something the courts will probably end up deciding. However, the First Amendment certainly does not protect the students from other consequences. The media have reported that the students have received death threats and other harassment. These, too, of course, are not legal. A person cannot threaten to kill or harm someone. However, the public is free to vilify and censor the students publicly in the media and through private businesses associated with the fraternity, and the public has been doing so through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. That’s not censorship. That’s practicing the right to protest as long as no one actually slanders, libels, or otherwise harms those students.
It is important to remember that the First Amendment equally protects someone protesting another person’s speech. For example, a student in a public school like where I teach has the right to say whatever he or she wants in any college media as long the student does not commit slander, libel, or break any laws. However, people have just as much right to protest what has been said or written, for example, organizing boycotts and petitions to advertisers, complaining to other people, pulling an ad, or writing a letter of complaint. That’s not censorship as that word applies to the First Amendment. That’s exercising someone’s right to protest.
However, government officials or administrators cannot interfere with anyone’s expression of speech or right to assembly. This can be difficult at times, as we have seen as the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past year. Where does the freedom to protest end and public safety begin? Certainly not in arresting journalists who were simply covering the protests. That, as we saw, backfired on the police. Certainly not, either, in the way the police kept the crowd moving and wouldn’t let people stop during some of those protests. In fact, a Federal judge ruled on that “5 second rule,” finding it unconstitutional and a violation of the protestors’ First Amendment rights. This is why nonviolence and legal actions are such an important part of the art of protest and were the foundation of the American Civil Rights movement. As long as protestors are not violent or breaking any other laws, they have the right to protest. Unfortunately, how are those rights going to be enforced if the police and/or other government administrators are the ones violating the rights? The media and the public have to be the enforcers of our own First Amendment rights, through lawsuits or other forms of protest.
Violations of the First Amendment occur sometimes in seemingly small ways in places far from the media spotlight like colleges, or other public institutions which are also legally bound to protect the speech and expression of their employees and anyone they serve. For example, college administrators cannot tell a student journalist that he or she may not write a story about a particular subject, must interview only certain people, or must gain permission from administrators to interview employees. Therefore, students who want to circulate petitions on campus or campaign for a candidate in an election, or some other kind of protest, have the right to do so, as long as they aren’t disruptive or violent. Other students have the right to protest those students’ speech or actions, as well. And so on. This is often frustrating for administrators and other employees, or even other students, but this is also part of the students’ learning process.
This includes the way administrators treat their employees. For example, employees have the right to speak to all media about anything, as long as they make it clear they are not speaking on behalf of the college or other institution, and as long they aren’t breaking a law, like slandering someone. That is their First Amendment right. The president of our college, for example, cannot legally decree that employees are not allowed to speak to any media without his or some other administrator’s permission. That is a violation of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, administrators sometimes stretch the boundaries of how censorship is defined, and only protest through legal channels or through publicity and mass protests will stop them. However, employees and students don’t always have the means to pursue those channels. So the First Amendment is really a form of protection only as far as the fear of being sued or vilified publicly enforces those protections. Consequently, sometimes even the government, whether it’s a branch of the federal government or an institution like a public college, tries to get away with acts of censorship. And that’s when protest becomes vitally important. People must protest censorship by administrators of all public institutions, loudly, through public pressure or even legal action. Even censorship of private businesses or organizations should be protested. It might be legal, but that doesn’t make it ethical. It also doesn’t mean that there won’t be consequences. An angry public or audience can choose to censor someone or something as its members see fit, including implementing a boycott. Boycotts and demonstrations are particularly powerful means of protest against private businesses and corporations, as we’ve seen in the recent protests against so-called “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and other states that violate the civil rights of members of the LGBT communities. As long as those protests are conducted in a public space, including the Internet and other media, they are legal. The First Amendment assures that. It is up to the public, however, to enforce that.