Campus Speech Codes: Not a Thing of the Past

By December 6, 2006

Today, FIRE released its first-ever report on the state of campus speech codes for 2005-2006. Despite the perhaps common perception that university speech codes are remnants of the 1980s and 90s, FIRE’s research shows that—despite multiple court decisions declaring them unconstitutional—speech codes are pervasive and thriving.
 
Of the 334 schools reviewed by FIRE, 229 received a red light rating, indicating that the school in question maintains highly unconstitutional standards, or what would be highly unconstitutional at a public college. 91 received a yellow light rating, indicating standards vague and broad enough to lend themselves to abuse. Only eight received a green light rating, indicating that FIRE could find no policies that seriously restricted free speech. FIRE did not rate 6 schools, because we do not rate private schools that clearly state they place certain values above free speech. For example, Brigham Young University is abundantly clear about the fact that they place their Mormon identity above all other factors, and incoming students are thus presumed to recognize that expectations of free speech are mistaken at BYU.
 
The green light schools are: Cleveland State University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, Elizabeth City State University, University of Iowa, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, University of Pennsylvania, and Washington and Lee University.
 
Some examples of red light speech codes include:
  • Davidson College in North Carolina prohibits “comments or inquiries about dating,” “patronizing remarks,” “innuendoes,” and “dismissive comments.”
  • At Jacksonville State University in Alabama, students can be punished if they “offend” anyone “on university owned or operated property.”
  • At the University of Mississippi, “offensive language is not to be used” over the telephone.
  • At Cal Tech, harassment includes any speech that “demeans…another because of his or her personal characteristics or beliefs.”
  • At Macalester College, harassment includes “speech that makes use of inappropriate words or non-verbals.”
  • University of North Carolina–Greensboro prohibits “disrespect for persons.”
  • West Chester University of Pennsylvania prohibits “any actions which demonstrate a lack of respect for the human rights and personal dignity of any individual.”
  • Saint Cloud State University bans “any derogatory remarks about a student’s race, class, age, gender, or physical limitations.”
  • Rutgers University prohibits “‘joking’ comments (between friends, roommates, floormates)…which may be racist, sexist, heterosexist (homophobic),” even when “it is believed or discovered that the perpetrator(s) has no specific or general intent to harm an individual or group.”
  • North Carolina School of the Arts forbids students from “[u]sing offensive speech or behavior of a biased or prejudiced nature related to one’s personal characteristics.”
  • At Texas Southern University, using “vulgar language” is prohibited.
  • Furman University restricts its students from engaging in any “offensive communication not in keeping with community standards.”
  • Finally, William Paterson University simply forbids “[b]ehavior that annoys.”
Speech codes are a true scandal at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE sincerely hopes that with greater public awareness, we can turn the tide against these illiberal and unconstitutional restrictions.