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Reports of Free Speech Violations Spiked During Pandemic

February 17, 2021

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, reported that during the pandemic it has been asked to help more students and faculty members who believe their free speech rights have been violated “than ever before,” according to a report published by the civil liberties watchdog organization Tuesday.

There were 1,001 total case submissions to FIRE during 2020, compared to 731 in 2019 and 652 in 2018, Daniel Burnett, director of communications, wrote in an email. The number of monthly cases sent to FIRE last year spiked in June, August, September and October, Burnett wrote.

Student and Faculty Rights Cases Submitted to FIRE
Month 2018 2019 2020
January 55 45 58
February 66 75 64
March 56 76 51
April 65 98 53
May 49 67 49
June 33 46 112
July 30 27 85
August 60 47 114
September 54 78 126
October 71 64 135
November 58 59 83
December 55 49 71
TOTAL 652 731 1,001

The report provides an overview of the types of unique free speech or due process challenges that students and faculty members have encountered over the last year, most of them related to college-enforced COVID-19 restrictions or the censorship of student or faculty member criticism directed at colleges. For example, the report notes several instances where public colleges attempted to censor students working as resident assistants when they challenged institutional policies for opening dorms or health protocols during the pandemic.

“Three predominant themes emerged from the cases FIRE took on since the spread of the pandemic: (1) censorship of speech related to academic institutions, (2) censorship of speech related to COVID‑19, and (3) troubling measures applied to campus communities during COVID‑19,” the report said.

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