Report: Campus Free Speech Threatened in New York State

February 13, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, February 13, 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 New York State continue to restrict student speech. Among the schools with New York’s worst speech codes were the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and Columbia University.

Two-thirds of the 392 colleges and universities analyzed nationwide—including two-thirds of institutions surveyed in New York—maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students, which FIRE calls "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 New York and nationwide.

Major Findings:

  • Of the 26 New York institutions surveyed, 17 (65%) earned a red light rating. No New York 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 the Constitution’s 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, going from eight to 14 schools. However, no green light schools are located in New York.

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 New York include: 

  • SUNY Fredonia prohibits "creating in [sic] a situation that results in the discomfort of" any member of the college community. Speech cannot be prohibited simply because it makes someone "uncomfortable"; otherwise, virtually every controversial or unpopular opinion would be subject to punishment.
  • Columbia University prohibits any "belittling remarks about a person’s gender" or "inappropriate sexual innuendos or humor." Students are left to guess, under threat of punishment, at what Columbia might deem "inappropriate" or "belittling."

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, New York 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