Report: Unlawful Speech Codes Thrive at Schools Nationwide

December 6, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, December 6, 2007—Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its 2007 report on campus speech codes, revealing that American colleges and universities are teeming with restrictions on students’ freedom of expression.
 
For the report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2007: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, FIRE reviewed policies at 346 American colleges and universities and found that 75 percent of schools surveyed maintain policies that clearly restrict speech that—outside the borders of campus—is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
 
“With increased resources and enhanced research techniques, FIRE was able to unearth even more of these unlawful and pervasive policies than those included in last year’s report,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “The 2007 report confirms that speech codes are still infecting college campuses, and the public needs to be aware of these dangerous violations of students’ right to engage in free and open expression.”
 
FIRE’s report is the most comprehensive effort to date to both quantify the number of colleges and universities that restrict free speech and assess the severity of those restrictions. The report surveyed publicly available policies at the 100 “Best National Universities” and at the 50 “Best Liberal Arts Colleges,” as rated in the August 28, 2006, “America’s Best Colleges” issue of U.S. News & World Report, as well as at an additional 196 major public universities. The research was conducted between September 2006 and September 2007.
 
All of the policies cited in the report are available on FIRE’s searchable speech codes database, Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource. People interested in drawing attention to their institution’s policies can easily do so by adding FIRE’s Speech Codes Widget to their blog or website. Easy instructions for adding the widget can be found here.
 
The report’s findings include:
  • Public colleges and universities are disregarding their constitutional obligations. A staggering 79 percent of public universities surveyed maintain unconstitutional speech codes, despite decades of federal court decisions striking down similar or identical policies.
  • Most private colleges and universities promise free speech, but they usually do not deliver. Unlike public universities, private universities are not legally bound by the First Amendment. However, most of them explicitly promise free speech rights to their students and faculty. For example, Tufts University promises it is “an open campus committed to the free exchange of ideas,” but it found student journalists guilty of harassment simply for publishing a satirical Christmas carol and a factually verifiable criticism of radical Islam that some members of the campus community found offensive.
Highlights of FIRE’s research from the 2006-2007 academic year include:
  • Northeastern University in Boston prohibits students from using the university’s network to “[t]ransmit or make accessible material, which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive….”
  • Florida Gulf Coast University prohibits “expressions deemed inappropriate.”
  • At The Ohio State University, students in the residence halls are instructed: “Do not joke about differences related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability, socioeconomic background, etc.”
The report chronicles the rise of speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s and discusses various ways in which universities curtail free speech on campus, including the establishment of free speech zones and the institution of policies on harassment, tolerance, respect, civility, and disorderly conduct.
 
FIRE’s report suggests several potential solutions to the problem of speech codes. Many of the speech codes at public universities would likely not survive a legal challenge. FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project has already led to the demise of similar codes at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, Citrus College, and the State University of New York at Brockport. This year brought two additional legal victories over unconstitutional speech codes. In March, a federal court in Pennsylvania permanently enjoined Temple University from enforcing an unconstitutional speech code. And in October, a federal court in California temporarily enjoined both San Francisco State University and the California State University system as a whole from enforcing several unconstitutional speech codes.
 
“Speech codes have been struck down by courts all over the country whenever they have been challenged, and FIRE will continue to fight these illiberal policies until they have all been eliminated,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. “Through FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project, our thorough research, and the continued awareness and support of the public, FIRE will fight to make sure the scandal of campus speech codes is finally put to an end.”
 
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, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, 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 Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; samantha@thefire.org