FIRE’s New Speech Code Report: Campus Speech Codes Trend Lower, but More Than 70 Percent of Colleges Restrict Free Speech

By on December 8, 2009

Today, FIRE has released our 2010 report on campus speech codes, revealing that for the second year in a row, the percentage of American colleges and universities that systematically violate students’ and faculty members’ right to freedom of expression has dropped. However, 71 percent of the 375 campuses analyzed still maintain codes that grant students less freedom of speech than they enjoy off campus.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2010: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses reports on policies at 375 of the largest and most prestigious American colleges and universities. Our report found that while the percentage of public campuses that unconstitutionally restrict student speech dropped from 77 percent to 71 percent, the percentage of private campuses that similarly restrict freedom of speech has risen by 3 points from 67 to 70 percent.

In today’s press release, Greg notes:

It is an ongoing scandal that so many public and private colleges and universities maintain rules that so blatantly flout our Constitution and our national traditions of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Universities should serve as the ultimate free speech zones for our society. We are encouraged, though, that the percentage of public universities that maintain unconstitutional codes is slowly shrinking.

This is FIRE’s fourth annual report, 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 2008 "America’s Best Colleges" issue of U.S. News & World Report. FIRE also researched codes at more than 200 additional major public institutions. The research was conducted between September 2008 and September 2009.

All of the policies cited in the report are accessible online in FIRE’s searchable speech code database, Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource. People interested in drawing attention to their institution’s policies can easily do so by adding FIRE’s Speech Code Widget to their blogs or websites. Easy instructions for adding the widget are located here.

Some of the most outrageous speech codes this year include:

  •  State University of New York at Brockport bans all uses of e-mail that "inconvenience others," including "offensive language or graphics (whether or not the receiver objects, since others may come in contact with it)."
  •  New York University explicitly prohibits "insulting," "teasing," and even "inappropriate jokes" when they are based on a legally protected status such as race, gender, or religion.
  •  San Jose State University bans "[a]ny form of activity, whether covert or overt, that creates a significantly uncomfortable … environment" in the dorms, which includes making "verbal remarks" and "publicly telling offensive jokes."

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2010: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses also discusses the emerging trend of universities stifling open debate on campus by charging student groups onerous and often unconstitutional security fees for bringing controversial speakers to campus. Such incidents have occurred in the last few years at University of California at Berkeley, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Arizona, and elsewhere.

Many of the speech codes at public universities are unconstitutional and likely would not survive legal challenge. FIRE’s Speech Code Litigation Project has already led to the demise of similar codes at Citrus College (California), San Francisco State University, Shippensburg University (Pennsylvania), SUNY-Brockport, Texas Tech University, and Temple University.

FIRE’s report offers several potential solutions to the problem of speech codes. In addition, in November, FIRE published Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies, a practical guide for university administrators seeking to protect freedom of expression on their campuses.

Will said in our press release:

Thanks in large part to FIRE’s work, the percentage of universities maintaining unconstitutional speech codes has decreased for the second year in a row, which is heartening. But it remains completely unacceptable that the vast majority of campuses restrict student speech, betraying the university’s role as the ultimate marketplace of ideas. FIRE will work to eliminate speech codes until no unconstitutional and illiberal policies remain.