WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2011—James Madison University (JMU) has eliminated the last of its speech codes, earning the highest, “green light” rating for free speech from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). While two-thirds of the nation’s colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech, JMU is now a proud exception, having fully reformed four speech codes. JMU is the 15th school nationwide to earn a “green light,” the fourth to do so in the last two years, and the third in Virginia. In each case, students took up the cause of speech-code reform with FIRE’s help.
“FIRE commends the students and administrators who have been working hard over the past two years to ensure the First Amendment rights of JMU students,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “We hope that more universities will follow JMU’s lead and take the steps necessary to protect their students’ rights.”
FIRE began working on speech-code reform with JMU students in October 2009, shortly after The College of William & Mary earned national acclaim for eliminating its speech codes and earning a “green light.”
Among the policies reformed by JMU was a policy prohibiting any speech that might “provoke” a violent reaction, language which had given an impermissible “heckler’s veto” to any angry protester who could shut down others’ speech simply by threatening violence. JMU rewrote the policy to clarify that only speech intended to incite violence by its supporters was prohibited.
JMU also eliminated a requirement that peaceful assemblies be registered 48 hours ahead of time which, if enforced, would have prevented impromptu vigils like those that took place on many campuses in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And FIRE learned last week that JMU has revised its final speech code, a policy that made postings subject to administrators’ interpretation of “good taste” and prohibited any “mention or representation of drugs or alcoholic beverages” in postings on campus. Under this policy, a flyer advertising a debate on the drinking age or marijuana legalization, or even one advocating an anti-drug message, would have been against the rules.
JMU joins its fellow Virginia public institutions The College of William & Mary and the University of Virginia in an elite group of 15 “green light” schools. FIRE is now turning its attention to Virginia’s other public universities, including George Mason University, which has a “red light” rating, and Virginia Tech, which has a “yellow light” rating.
“Virginia now leads the country in ‘green light’ public universities, thanks in no small part to the hard work of students who have dedicated themselves to making these changes happen,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research. “We hope that students across the country will be inspired by these efforts and will advocate for speech-code reform on their own campuses.”
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.