3 of 4 universities censor speech

By on December 15, 2008

Universities across the United States should be known as bastions of censorship, not education, according to a new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The organization’s 2009 report on campus speech codes reveals that colleges and universities across the nation routinely and systematically violate students’ and faculty members’ right to freedom of expression.

The report, called "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, confirms that policies at 364 colleges and universities were reviewed, and 74 percent "maintain policies that clearly restrict speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

"Unfortunately, this year’s report demonstrates that – despite decades of precedent declaring speech codes unlawful and two decisions this year alone – the majority of colleges and universities brazenly maintain policies that violate students’ and faculty members’ fundamental rights," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Everyone who values the free exchange of ideas should be deeply disturbed by these findings."

The report released today is the most comprehensive effort to date regarding the size of the college majority that restricts free speech. It also assesses the severity of those restrictions.

The report surveyed publicly available policies at institutions ranked in the 100 "Best National Universities" and at the 50 "Best Liberal Arts Colleges," as rated in the August 27, 2007, "America’s Best Colleges" issue of U.S. News & World Report, as well as at 207 major public universities. The research was conducted between September 2007 and September 2008.

"Public universities, as governmental entities, are legally bound to respect First Amendment rights," the report said. "Yet 77 percent of them explicitly prohibit protected speech, as compared to 67 percent of private universities."

Among the problems uncovered:

  • The University of the Pacific defines harassment as "conduct (intentional or unintentional) that has the effect of demeaning, ridiculing, defaming, stigmatizing, intimidating, slandering or impeding the work or movement of a person or persons or conduct that supports or parodies the oppression of others."
  • Penn State University requires its students to agree that "I will not engage in any behaviors that compromise or demean the dignity of individuals or groups," including any "taunting," "ridiculing," or "insulting."
  • Texas Southern University prohibits causing "emotional, mental, physical or verbal harm to another person" by means including "embarrassing, degrading or damaging information, assumptions, implications, [or] remarks."

The report suggested many of the speech codes likely would not survive legal challenges, and FIRE’s efforts in that regard already have defeated various speech restrictions at Citrus College, San Francisco State University, Shippensburg University, State University of New York at Brockport and others.

"This year, the percentage of universities maintaining unconstitutional speech codes has decreased for the first time, and that is very encouraging news," said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of speech code research. "But there is still a lot of work to be done. Many universities have changed their policies in response to public exposure, and you can count on FIRE to keep the pressure on in the years to come."

The decline amounted to less than one percentage point.

The report said the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed restrictions on speech that incites reasonable people to immediate violence, fighting words, harassment, true threats, obscenity and libel.

"If the speech in question does not fall within one of these exceptions, it most likely is protected speech," the report said.

A developing problem among schools is the application of restrictions on "threatening" language, the report said.

"Earlier this year, Colorado College found two students guilty of violating the college’s policy on ‘violence’ because of a satirical flyer – mocking a publication of the college’s Feminist and Gender Studies Program – that administrators deemed ‘implicitly threatening," the report said.

The original flyer, the "Monthly Rag," included an ad for a lecture by a "world-famous prostitute & porn star" and a reference to "male castration." The mockery, the "Monthly Bag," had articles that dealt with machismo instead of feminism and discussed abusive women.

The students who created the parody were found guilty.

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