New FIRE Report: Campus Speech Codes Decline Again

January 10, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, January 10, 2012—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org) released its 2012 report on campus speech codes today. The vast majority of the 392 colleges and universities analyzed still maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students. For the fourth consecutive year, however, this percentage has slowly dropped. In another encouraging development, more schools eliminated all of their restrictive speech codes in 2011. Despite these positive trends, FIRE’s report identifies troubling new legislative and regulatory threats to free speech on campus.

Major Findings: 

  • Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the 392 schools surveyed have speech codes that clearly fail to meet First Amendment standards. (FIRE labels these "red light" speech codes.)
  • Nevertheless, this represents a 10-point decline from four years ago, when policies at 75% of schools could not have passed constitutional muster.
  • While public colleges and universities are required to uphold the First Amendment, public institutions were no more likely than private schools to have policies that met the Constitution’s standards. (65% of public and private schools were red light.)
  • In some good news, the number of schools that do not maintain any speech codes has nearly doubled in the last four years, going from eight to 14 schools.
  • Virginia was the best state for free speech on campus, with only 29% of schools rated having red light speech codes. Illinois was the worst of the large states, with 100% red light schools. 

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2012: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses (web version / PDF version) reports on policies at America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities. Some of this year’s most outrageous speech codes include: 

  • At Eastern Michigan University, sexual harassment includes any "inappropriate sexual or gender-based activities, comments or gestures."
  • Jackson State University in Mississippi prohibits as harassment "verbally abusive language by any person on University-owned or controlled property."
  • Angelo State University in Texas prohibits the use of "indecent, profane or vulgar language."

FIRE Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris said, "FIRE is pleased that colleges have continued to jettison speech codes, however slowly. Unfortunately, this progress is threatened by recent legislative initiatives at both the state and federal levels, as well as by new regulations from the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights."

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

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT: 
Samantha Harris, Director of Speech Code Research, FIRE: 215-717-3473; samantha@thefire.org