Report: Campus Free Speech Threatened in Pennsylvania

March 15, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, March 15, 2012—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org) has released its 2012 report on campus speech codes. Although Pennsylvania colleges and universities have fewer speech codes than the national average, institutions in Pennsylvania continue to restrict free speech to an impermissible degree. Among the schools with Pennsylvania’s worst speech codes were Lehigh University and West Chester University.

The vast majority of the 392 colleges and universities analyzed nationwide—and more than half of Pennsylvania institutions surveyed—maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students, which FIRE calls “red light” policies. There is good news, however: for the fourth consecutive year, 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 Pennsylvania and nationwide.

Major Findings:

  • Of the thirty Pennsylvania institutions surveyed, sixteen (53%) received a red light rating.
  • 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.
  • Two schools in Pennsylvania received a green light rating: Carnegie Mellon University and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

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 Pennsylvania include:

  • Lehigh University prohibits any “jokes” that “offend, demean, harass, or intimidate.” Speech cannot be restricted simply because it is offensive or demeaning. This policy would ban nearly any stand-up comedian from performing his or her act on campus.
  •  At West Chester University, it is a violation of university policy to send “annoying” or “offensive” emails. Since a person can find nearly anything “annoying” or “offensive,” this policy effectively renders every West Chester student a campus criminal. 

Speech codes maintained by Pennsylvania public universities like West Chester are particularly problematic. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit—the jurisdiction of which includes Pennsylvania—has struck down public university speech codes on First Amendment grounds twice in the past four years, in DeJohn v. Temple University (2008) and McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands (2010). These decisions, which are binding on public universities in Pennsylvania, make clear that public universities may not restrict students’ First Amendment rights.

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, Pennsylvania 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