Meeting First Amendment Standards: In 2015, More Universities Are Making the Grade

By July 30, 2015

By Azhar Majeed at The Huffington Post

It shouldn’t be a big deal when public colleges and universities make sure that their written policies and regulations respect the First Amendment rights of students and faculty members. After all, public institutions of higher education are fully bound (legally and morally) to uphold freedom of speech on campus, as courts have made clear in case law spanning decades. These institutions are the places where speech and expression should be most free.

Yet year after year, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), finds that the vast majority of colleges and universities — both public and private — maintain speech codes that severely restrict or overly regulate the expression of students and professors. Our most recent annual report found that approximately 55 percent of the 437 institutions we surveyed nationally had at least one “red light” speech code, which are facially unconstitutional speech restrictions.

By contrast, only a paltry 4 percent of schools enjoy what we call a “green light” rating, meaning their written policies do not meaningfully threaten campus expression.

If you think that 4 percent figure is unacceptable, you’re not alone. We at FIRE have been fighting campus speech codes for years, using tactics from written advocacy to publications aimed specifically at university administrators to, increasingly, litigation.

Fortunately, the year 2015 has already witnessed several universities working with us to eliminate their speech codes and protect the “marketplace of ideas” that their campuses are meant to be. With other schools lined up to make similar improvements, we hope the trend continues through the rest of the year — and beyond.

It began with George Mason University in April. Over the course of roughly a year, Mason administrators collaborated with FIRE to revise seven different policies that excessively regulated First Amendment rights. Likewise, Purdue University became a green light institution in May and, to boot, adopted a sterling policy statement on academic freedom modeled after the University of Chicago’s exemplary statement.

Both of these institutions should be proud, not only of their green light status but of the work they put in to get there — between them, they reformed a combined 12 speech codes!

More than that, though, both schools showcased renewed support and enthusiasm for open inquiry and discourse on campus. In the words of George Mason’s Vice President for University Life, Rose Pascarell, “Mason remains committed to protecting our community’s rights to express themselves. Only through open discussion of ideas and opinions can we reach a mutual understanding — even if that understanding is to disagree.”

George Mason and Purdue were soon followed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which in July revised the last of its remaining speech codes and became the 21st green light institution in FIRE’s Spotlight database (as well as the first in the state of North Carolina). Later in the month, Western State Colorado Universityjoined our elite list, becoming the first green light university in its own state.

With that, FIRE has been able to help four universities improve to our highest free speech rating already this year (with some other institutions poised to take the same step).

These changes benefit faculty members and students tremendously in the exercise of their free speech rights. But they don’t have to be passive bystanders in this process. Indeed, students can be–and have been–powerful proponents for campus freedom. At Purdue, for example, students Andrew Zeller and Emilie Watson led the charge by introducing free speech resolutions in the student government and meeting with members of the university administration, including president Mitch Daniels, to urge the necessary revisions.

Their advocacy ultimately provided the impetus for Purdue to make all of the policy changes recommended by FIRE. As Zeller and Watson put it, “We hope that our success encourages other students around the country to seek positive changes on their own campuses. If students educate themselves on their schools’ policies and stand up for their rights on campus, they can be the driving force behind positive, proactive change.”

As the year rolls on, we hope to add more colleges and universities to our green light list — and we will celebrate each of them with positive press, as we have done with all four institutions thus far. Already, 2015 has been a great year for speech code reform. To the university students, faculty, and administrators who care about freedom of expression on campus, I encourage you to help keep the momentum going. FIRE is always available to help you make your campus more free for discussion, debate, and dialogue. You can contact us at any time to help with your own speech code reform efforts. We’ll be waiting for you.