Drexel, West Chester weak on free-speech protection

December 20, 2007

A report issued by a Philadelphia-based civil liberties organization shows 75 percent of U.S. colleges and universities have policies restricting the free speech rights of students on campus. The report, which was published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), surveyed 346 institutions of higher education.

“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. Last year FIRE conducted it first nationwide investigation into speech codes, surveying 360 universities, and found 68 percent restricted speech that would be protected outside the campus.

“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,” Mr. Lukianoff added.

The report investigated the speech code policies of both public and private universities and characterized the schools as “red light,” “yellow light,” and “green light.” A university earning a red light marker “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” while a yellow light indicates a school “has policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech, or policies that, while restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech.” A green light meant free speech was a go.

According to FIRE, some respected Philadelphia schools still have a way to go in correcting free speech concerns. Temple University’s sexual harassment policy has earned the school a yellow light. In March, Temple was permanently enjoined from enforcing an unconstitutional speech code centered on curbing harassment.

West Chester University was given a red light for a speech code penalizing speech “such as a nasty remark about a person’s race or religion.” Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, both private institutions, received a red and green light respectively.

In comparing the free speech rights enjoyed by students of private universities to public universities, FIRE discovered 79 percent of private universities received a red light, while public schools, which were organized by region, had a low of 71 percent in the West and a high of 77 percent in the Northeast.

Because the First Amendment only restricts government censorship of speech, a student attending a private university is not afforded the same constitutional protections of his public university counterpart. FIRE, nonetheless, argues private schools continually promise free speech rights when recruiting students to attend the school.

“In fact, most elite private universities make extensive promises of free speech and academic freedom, presumably to lure the most talented students and faculty, since most people would not want to study and teach where they could not speak and write freely,” the report stated. Another disturbing trend unearthed by the report concerns the correlation between enrollment and censorship.

Seventy-two percent of schools with an enrollment under 10,000 students received a red-light, while 75 percent with an enrollment between 10,000 and 20,000 received the same rating. The red light rating increased to 78 percent for schools with an enrollment between 20,000 and 30,000 and topped of at 80 percent for schools in excess of 30,000 students.

“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.

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Schools: Drexel University West Chester University of Pennsylvania