FIRE Releases Third Annual Report on Campus Speech Codes

By December 15, 2008

FIRE’s third annual report on campus speech codes, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, is now available for download. The report is also available in hard copy; e-mail fire@thefire.org to request a copy.

As detailed in today’s press release, the report found that American colleges and universities continue to systematically violate students’ and faculty members’ right to freedom of expression. Of the 364 institutions surveyed in the report, approximately 270 of themmaintain policies that clearly restrict speech that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment. The incidence of unconstitutional speech codes is significantly higher at public universities (77%) than at private universities (67%), which is striking in light of the fact that public universities, as government entities, are obligated to uphold the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Some of the most outrageous speech codes from the 20072008 academic year include:

  • 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," including by "embarrassing, degrading or damaging information, assumptions, implications, remarks, or fear for one’s safety.

The report is not all bad news, however; while the percentage of institutions with unconstitutional speech codes74.2 percentis disturbingly high, it represents a slight improvement over last year, when the figure was a full 75 percent. This may be a small shift, but it is a trend in the right direction, and one that FIRE hopeswith our ongoing hard workwill continue in the years to come.