By The Wall Street Journal at The Wall Street Journal
Here’s a less than enthusiastic word of thanks to America’s college administrators. Close to 60% of campuses in 2013 substantially abridged the First Amendment rights of faculty and students. But at least that’s an improvement from 75% in 2007—the year the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire) produced its first comprehensive assessment of the state of free speech on campus.
The foundation’s latest report shows how elusive the promise of open inquiry remains for most American students. Fire surveyed 427 public and private four-year colleges and says it found 250 speech codes that are facially unconstitutional. These campus policies take such a broad view of speech as “harassment” that any controversial viewpoint is potentially punishable.
Alabama’s Troy University, a public institution, is one of two schools that earned the dubious honor of having promulgated Fire’s 2013 “Speech Codes of the Year.” (The other is Virginia State University.) Troy’s code of conduct prohibits “any comments or conduct consisting of words or actions that are unwelcome or offensive to a person in relation to sex, race, age, religion, national origin, color, marital status, pregnancy, or disability or veteran’s status.”
Note how this definition of offensiveness hinges solely on an accuser’s subjective feeling, though the First Amendment doesn’t distinguish between offensive and inoffensive speech. Many schools also limit student expression to laughably small “free-speech zones,” which often must be reserved weeks or months in advance and after navigating labyrinthine rules.
Some schools even make it difficult for students to learn what their speech-related policies are. Fire reports that Texas Tech University’s Acceptable Use Policy, governing the use of campus IT systems such as email, is password-protected. At Connecticut College, prospective parents and students wishing to learn how the school handles so-called bias incidents will have to wait until enrollment, since the school’s “Bias Incident Protocol” is hidden behind a login page—as is the Student Handbook.
Colleges ought to be beacons of free inquiry, but too many continue to punish politically incorrect speech.