Report: Campus Free Speech Threatened in Massachusetts

March 29, 2012

BOSTON, March 29, 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 Massachusetts continue to restrict student speech. Among the schools with Massachusetts’ worst speech codes were Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The vast majority of the 392 colleges and universities analyzed nationwide—and two-thirds of Massachusetts institutions surveyed—maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students, which FIRE labels "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 Massachusetts and nationwide.

Major Findings:

  • Of the 24 institutions surveyed in Massachusetts, 16 (67%) received a red light. No Massachusetts school was free of speech restrictions
  • Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the 392 schools surveyed nationally have speech codes that clearly fail to meet First Amendment standards. (FIRE labels these "red light" speech codes.)
  • While public colleges and universities are legally required to uphold the First Amendment, public institutions nationally were no more likely than private ones to have policies that met the Constitution’s standards. (65% of both 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. (FIRE labels these "green light" institutions.) However, no green light schools are located in Massachusetts.

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 in Massachusetts include:

  • Northeastern University prohibits sending any email that "in the sole judgment of the University is offensive." This policy expressly gives the university unfettered discretion to decide what it may punish, forcing students to guess at what they can and cannot say.
  • At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it is a violation of university policy to speak with "incivility" in the residence halls. However, at a public institution bound by the First Amendment like UMass Amherst, speech cannot be prohibited simply because it is not "civil"; otherwise, any heated expression of opinion would be subject to punishment.

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 the rest of the nation, Massachusetts 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 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