Southeastern Legal Foundation’s First Amendment Director Cece O’Leary Discusses America’s Biased College Campus Climates

Live from Music Row, Friday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed attorney Cece O’Leary of Southeastern Legal Foundation and its director of 1A (First Amendment) violations to the newsmaker line to deep dive into the biased policies limiting freedom of speech on college campuses in America.

Leahy: We are joined in studio by the director of litigation for the Southeastern Legal Foundation, Braden Boucek. And on the newsmaker line and also with the Southeastern Legal Foundation, an expert on the First Amendment, Cece O’Leary. Welcome back, Cece.

O’Leary: Hey, great to be here.

Leahy: We want to have a deeper dive on the First Amendment, and, of course, Braden is here in the studio, as well.

What do you have to add as to what the Southeastern Legal Foundation is currently doing to defend the First Amendment, which needs defending, by the way?

O’Leary: Yes, it absolutely does. We were just talking the other day about how attacks on free speech are coming from all sides. They’re coming from professors in the classroom.

They’re coming from administrators through policies we spoke about, facility use policies where they require students to get advanced approval before they can speak.

But these attacks are also coming from their classmates, and they’re coming in the form of a biased reporting system. Through these biased reporting systems, colleges set up this antibiotics code where they say that you cannot offend anyone on campus.

And then they say, if you feel like you have been offended, we encourage you to report your classmates for their speech. And then administrators investigate those reports and even will punish those students who have done the offending.

It sets up this whole police state on campus, and there are some really crazy things happening with these reports on college campuses.

Leahy: It sounds a little bit more like 1984 than anything else. (Laughter) Braden, do you want to jump in on this?

Boucek: How are you doing, Cece? I guess we don’t get enough time to talk on our Zoom calls.

O’Leary: I know. It’s fun to be here with you.

Boucek: Hey, Cece, I’m familiar, obviously, with a lot of your work here, but help Michael understand the depths of this. Can you tell us about some of these incidents? I know, like, particularly the one about the Cards Against Humanity jumped out to me, but share some of that with the listeners.

O’Leary: At Bowling Green State University, which is in Ohio, not too far from you guys, they maintain a list of all of the past incidents that have been reported. So you can check out their website and see for yourself the kinds of things that have been reported.

And last fall, some students were playing it just says a card game in their dorm room, but I imagine it must have been Cards Against Humanity, the way this report reads. And for anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it’s a card game that’s entirely meant to be irreverent and inappropriate, and politically incorrect.

That’s the whole point of the game. So there are inappropriate prompts and inappropriate responses, and the most inappropriate response wins. So, students are playing this card game in their dorm room, and somebody overheard them playing it and reported them to campus authorities, and they got in trouble.

So you’re not even safe in your dorm rooms. Another example on this list is a student who reported a medical textbook to campus authorities because the medical textbook didn’t use up-to-date terms and didn’t include transgender and intersex individuals. So if textbooks aren’t safe these days and science textbooks aren’t safe, then no one really is from the campus.

Leahy: So, isn’t the culture in these schools to turn as many students as possible into busybody snitches?

O’Leary: That’s exactly what’s going on. And like I said, it’s not just the students that are doing it. It’s the administrators, the professors. And to your point, I think it’s not about making college a marketplace of ideas anymore.

It’s about making everyone think the same and feel the same. Nobody’s allowed to have a difference of opinion anymore.

Boucek: How are students expected to respond when they’re written up for these anti-bias incidents?

O’Leary: At one university, in particular, Clemson University, they actually lay out a very detailed process for what happens once students are reported. And the first thing they say is, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world.

You’ve been reported to campus authorities, but just don’t worry about it. And then they get into detail about what’s going to happen. You’re going to be investigated. You can face punishment.

But what they conclude with is they say, as long as you demonstrate that you have learned something from this, you will find the process to be a whole lot easier. In other words, change your views or else.

So it’s really quite intimidating. It creates this whole chilling effect on campus where students are deterred from saying anything that could get them written up or reported. And it’s quite alarming to see these words written on screen.

Leahy: This is un-American.

O’Leary: Yes, it definitely is, to say the least.

Leahy: What’s the prospect for changing this A? And B, how widespread is this in higher education?

O’Leary: Unfortunately, it’s happening everywhere. We sent letters to large state schools, but we also sent letters to junior colleges. It’s happening in technical colleges. It’s happening in the Ivy League.

And as far as changing it goes, there are a couple of things here that need to change. Number one, we’re calling on administrators in these letters that we’ve sent to universities to read up on the First Amendment, understand why these policies are wrong, and change those policies.

But we also encourage students to educate themselves more about the First Amendment. And that’s a big piece of what we do through our 1A project at Southeastern Legal Foundation.

Leahy: Tell me more about the 1A project, and how can people participate.

O’Leary: The 1A project has kind of two purposes. We are here as a legal resource for college students. Anytime they run into issues with their free speech rights on college campuses, we’re also here as an educational resource for them.

So we have resources like our guidebook available on our website that students can download and the guidebook provides an overview of their First Amendment rights. We also visit individual campuses and talk to students about the First Amendment and walk through their campus policies with them and raise any red flags that we see on their campus.

So we are available to meet college students where they are. So any college student who is interested, we’re happy to talk to them. And, yes, we encourage them to read these letters as well and understand what’s wrong with these kinds of policies on their own campuses.

Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Cece O’Leary” by Southeastern Legal Foundation. Background Photo “Technology Building, Bowling Green State University” by Mbrickn. CC BY-SA 4.0.


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