FIRE Releases Fifth Annual Report on Campus Speech Codes

By December 20, 2010

Earlier today, FIRE released its latest annual report on campus speech codes, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses. The report reveals that 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities we analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ free speech rights. While this number has dropped for the third year in a rowlast year, the figure was 71 percentalarming trends on the horizon suggest that a surge in restrictions may be imminent if supporters of free speech do not remain vigilant.

Some of this year’s most outrageous speech codes include:

  • Colorado College prohibits any act that causes any individual or group "ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other such result."
  • Cal Tech prohibits using electronic information resources to "offend" anyone.
  • The University of Florida prohibits "[h]umor and jokes about sex that denigrate a gender.

This year, the percentage of public campuses that clearly and substantially restrict student speech dropped from 71 percent to 67 percent, and the percentage of private campuses that do so declined from 70 to 65 percent.

However, recent legislation introduced in Congress and similar state bills threaten to undermine this progress. Federal and state bills aimed at combating "bullying" on university campuses threaten to redefine student-on-student harassment in a way that seriously jeopardizes student speech rights. While well-intentioned, these bills ignore the crucial difference between children in elementary and high schools and adult college students, as well as the fact that much of what is being termed "bullying" on the college campus is actually already prohibited by existing laws.

FIRE’s fifth annual report is the largest and most comprehensive effort to date both to quantify the proportion of colleges and universities that restrict free speech and to assess the severity of those restrictions. The report surveys publicly available policies at institutions ranked in the 100 "Best National Universities" and at the 50 "Best Liberal Arts Colleges," as rated in the 2009 "America’s Best Colleges" issue of U.S. News & World Report. FIRE also researched codes at more than 230 additional major public institutions. The research was conducted between September 2009 and September 2010.

The report also discusses legal developments affecting free speech on campus. Yet another speech code was ruled unconstitutional in federal court this year in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, continuing the long line of legal precedent holding that speech codes at public universities violate students’ First Amendment rights.