Report: 55 Percent of Colleges Surveyed Have ‘Severely Restrictive’ Speech Policies

August 18, 2015

By Meghan Keenan at Red Alert Politics

A new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that over half of colleges surveyed by the organization restrict student’s freedom of speech.

FIRE released its annual “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report, which surveyed 437 schools and found that 55 percent of those schools had “severely restrictive,” or “red light” speech codes. The report defines its “red light” rating as “policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.”

Only 4 percent, or 18 of the schools surveyed, were given the “green light” rating, indicating that FIRE finds these university’s speech policies do not seriously threaten campus expression.

The remaining 39 percent of the schools received a “yellow light,” meaning their policies could be interpreted to suppress protected speech. For example, a ban on “verbal abuse” could punish unprotected speech such as threats of violence or genuine harassment, but could also pose a substantial threat to free speech. Schools also received a yellow light rating if their policies were restrictive for narrow categories of speech. According to FIRE, these “yellow light” policies are still typically unconstitutional.

The report noted that the results are an improvement from last year, when more than 58 percent of schools were labeled “red light” on their speech policies. This is also the seventh year in a row that the percentage of schools in the red light category has declined, showing an overall trend among American colleges towards less restrictive speech codes. Seven years ago, 75 percent of schools surveyed by FIRE were placed in the red light category.

While there is overall improvement, the report noted that a number of colleges and universities adopted more restrictive sexual harassment policies this year, following the May 2013 release of a federal “blueprint” by the Departments of Education and Justice.

In this year’s report, Missouri was found to have the schools with the most restrictive speech policies – 85 percent of schools surveyed in the state received a red light rating. On the other side of the spectrum, Indiana had the least amount of red light ratings at 25 percent.