American Colleges are Killing Free Speech

August 14, 2015

By Sam Rolley at Personal Liberty

American colleges are seriously violating students’ free speech rights with severely restrictive speech codes, according to a new report out from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

FIRE surveyed 437 U.S. schools for its annual “Spotlight on Speech Codes”, an examination of the state of free speech on campuses, finding that 55 percent maintain highly restrictive “red light” speech codes designed to silence students. That’s down from 58.6 percent last year but still alarmingly high.

“Since public colleges and universities are legally bound to protect their students’ First Amendment rights, any percentage above zero is unacceptable, so much work remains to be done,” the organization said.

FIRE defines “red light” speech codes thusly:

A red light institution is one that has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access. A “clear” restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on protected expression. In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied. A “substantial” restriction on free speech is one that is broadly applicable to campus expression. For example, a ban on “offensive speech” would be a clear violation (in that it is unambiguous) as well as a substantial violation (in that it covers a great deal of what would be protected expression in the larger society). Such a policy would earn a university a red light.

Colleges that earned the red light designation include such notables as Boston University, Harvard University, Columbia University and Georgetown University.

FIRE’s analysis reveals that institutional abuse of students’ 1st Amendment rights also extends beyond obvious free speech issues.

For example, misguided federal policies that give colleges the incentive to treat campus sexual misconduct with a heavy hand (and without due process) have encouraged speech bans that include even the tamest sexual innuendo. Same goes for allegations of hate speech.

According to the report, the frequencies of universities’ free speech abuses varied by state.

From the report:

In Missouri, more than 85% of schools surveyed received a red light rating, as did 80% of schools in Washington state and 78% of schools in Louisiana. By contrast, only 25% of the schools surveyed in Indiana received a red light. Other states that fared comparatively well in our survey were Virginia (31% red light) and North Carolina (37% red light).

Virginia, FIRE contends, represents a particularly bright spot for campus speech protections since Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill effectively prohibiting the establishment of “free speech zones” in 2014.

That law provides that “universities shall not impose restrictions on the time, place, and manner of student speech that occurs in the outdoor areas of the institution’s campus and is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

FIRE’s report caught the eye of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who sent letters to 163 “red light” colleges and universities asking that they update speech codes to comply with the 1st Amendment.

“The First Amendment states: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …’ yet despite these constitutional protections, speech-restrictive policies in our nation’s public colleges and universities remain,” Goodlatte’s letter said.