Report: Campus Free Speech Threatened in Florida

March 2, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, March 2, 2012—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org) has released its 2012 report on campus speech codes. Unfortunately, the report shows that colleges in Florida continue to restrict student speech. Among the schools with Florida’s worst speech codes are Florida State University and the University of Miami.

Two-thirds of the 392 colleges and universities analyzed nationwide—including three-quarters of institutions surveyed in Florida—maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students, which FIRE deems "red light" policies. For the fourth consecutive year, however, this national 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 in Florida and nationwide.

Major Findings:

  • Of the eight Florida institutions surveyed, six (75%) earned a red light rating. No Florida school was completely free of restrictions on student speech.
  • Two-thirds (65%) of the 392 schools surveyed nationally have speech codes that clearly fail to meet First Amendment standards.
  • While public colleges and universities are required to uphold the First Amendment, public institutions nationally were no more likely than private ones to have policies that met constitutional standards: 65% of both public and private schools earned red lights.
  • In some good news, the number of schools nationally that do not maintain any speech codes (FIRE awards such schools a "green light" rating) has nearly doubled in the last four years, from eight to 14 schools. However, no green light schools are located in Florida.

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. In Florida, some of this year’s most outrageous speech codes include:

  • Florida State University prohibits "unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate, or irrelevant sexual or gender-based behaviors, actions or comments." Speech cannot be prohibited simply because it is subjectively deemed to be "inappropriate" or "irrelevant"; otherwise, many controversial or unpopular opinions would be subject to punishment.
  • The University of Miami prohibits any "words" that "degrade, demean," or "interfere with another person’s rightful actions or comfort." Students are left to guess, under threat of punishment, what the university might find to be "demeaning" or what might interfere with another person’s "comfort."

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. Like their counterparts throughout the rest of the nation, Florida colleges have a lot of work to do when it comes to protecting free speech."
 
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 institution’s 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