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New Report: 59% of Campuses Maintain Severe Speech Restrictions–But That’s Actually an Improvement

January 17, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, January 17, 2014—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its 2014 report on campus speech codes today, finding that 59% of the 427 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ speech rights. For the sixth consecutive year, however, this percentage has dropped. Despite this progress, confusing signals from the federal government have created an unacceptable tension between universities’ twin obligations to protect free speech and to prevent discriminatory harassment.

Major findings from Spotlight on Speech Codes 2014: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses include:

  • 59% (58.6%) of the 427 schools surveyed have speech codes that clearly and substantially restrict protected speech. (FIRE labels these “red light” schools.) Another 35.6% have “yellow light” policies that overregulate speech on campus.
  • This represents a nearly 17-point decline in red light schools from six years ago (PDF), when policies at 75% of schools seriously restricted student speech.
  • The percentage of red light public schools, which are legally bound by the First Amendment, continued to drop, from 61.6% last year to 57.6% this year.
  • The percentage of red light private schools (which promise free speech but do not deliver it) also fell, from 63.4% last year to 61.5% this year.
  • In more good news, Eastern Kentucky University eliminated all of its speech codes this year, earning FIRE’s highest, “green light,” rating.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2014 reports on policies at more than 400 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities. This year’s report shows that too many universities, including public universities bound by the First Amendment, continue to place substantial restrictions on students’ right to free speech. For example:

  • The University of South Carolina prohibits “teasing,” “ridiculing,” and “insulting.”
  • The University of Connecticut requires that “[e]very member of the University shall refrain from actions that intimidate, humiliate, or demean persons or groups, or that undermine their security or self-esteem.”
  • Florida State University bans any “unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate, or irrelevant sexual or gender-based behaviors, actions or comments.”

“We are heartened to see another drop in the percentage of campuses maintaining restrictive speech codes,” FIRE’s Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris said. “There is much more work to be done, however, particularly in light of the confusing messages coming from the federal government about the relationship between harassment and free speech. For starters, the Department of Education needs to make clear to universities, once and for all, that prohibiting harassment does not mean restricting protected speech.”

All of the policies cited in the report are accessible online in FIRE’s searchable Spotlight database. 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.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has highlighted the report in a staff editorial (subscription required).

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 Policy Research, FIRE: 215-717-3473; samantha@thefire.org