by Eric Owens
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its 2014 report on campus speech codes over the weekend. The results show that school administrators across the country continue to inflict unconstitutional limits on campus speech.
Of the 427 U.S. colleges and universities analyzed, FIRE staffers found that 59 percent maintain speech codes that seriously infringe on students’ constitutionally-protected speech rights.
A large number of these schools are public schools funded by taxpayers, controlled by state employees and obviously bound by the First Amendment. All — or virtually all — of the private schools rake in millions of federal dollars in the way of loans and grants transferred to the schools by individual students.
FIRE breaks down schools’ speech codes by the colors on a stoplight: red, yellow and green.
Just over 250 schools receive FIRE’s ominmous red-light rating. A red light means that a school has a speech code that “clearly and substantially restrict protected speech,” according to a FIRE press release.
Another 36 percent of the schools (so just over 150 schools) have yellow-light policies. This rating means that the schools over-regulate campus speech.
Only a couple dozen schools receive a green-light rating, which means they actually enforce the First Amendment’s guarantee against government restrictions on freedom of speech.
The policy at each school with an anti-First Amendment speech code is disturbing in its own way.
At the public, taxpayer-funded University of South Carolina, for example, a speech code prohibits “teasing,” “ridiculing” and “insulting,” according to FIRE.
The public, taxpayer-funded University of Connecticut requires all students and employees to “refrain from actions that intimidate, humiliate, or demean persons or groups, or that undermine their security or self-esteem.”
At public, taxpayer-funded Florida State University, school administrators have banned any “unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate, or irrelevant sexual or gender-based behaviors, actions or comments.”
And, of course, at public, taxpayer-funded Florida Atlantic University — the saddest, sorriest place in America to attend college by a landslide — a speech code mandates that “everyone in the FAU community behave and speak to and about one another in ways that are not racist, religiously intolerant or otherwise degrading to others.” (RELATED: Florida Atlantic University is still the worst place in America to attend college)
The silver lining to FIRE’s annual report is that the number of schools receiving red-light ratings has dropped a bit from last year.
The number of schools with red-light ratings has, in fact, declined in each of the six years that the free-speech group has been rating schools for their ability (and, mostly, inability) to abide by the First Amendment. In the first year of the ratings, 75 percent of all schools FIRE analyzed clearly and substantially restricted protected speech.
The percentage of red-light public schools dropped from 61.6% last year to 57.6% this year.
The percentage of red-light private schools dropped from 63.4% last year to 61.5% this year.
“We are heartened to see another drop in the percentage of campuses maintaining restrictive speech codes,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Policy Research, in a press release. “There is much more work to be done, however, particularly in light of the confusing messages coming from the federal government about the relationship between harassment and free speech. For starters, the Department of Education needs to make clear to universities, once and for all, that prohibiting harassment does not mean restricting protected speech.”
Schools: Florida Atlantic University