Study: Less Than 5 Percent Of Colleges Uphold The First Amendment

June 24, 2015

By Elizabeth Potter at Washington Examiner

A new study says that less than 5 percent of colleges and universities surveyed have policies in place that respect the First Amendment right to free speech, while more than half are violating either the First Amendment or free speech promises made by these schools.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is an educational nonprofit that reviews 437 college and university speech codes every year in an effort to “defend the individual rights of students and faculty members at colleges across the country,” said Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program.

FIRE puts schools into three categories: red light, yellow light and green light. Red light ratings are for schools that have at least one policy that violates student and faculty freedom of expression, and in the group’s 2015 poll, 55.2 percent of these schools got the red light. That’s a slight improvement from the 58.6 percent of schools that got a red light rating in the prior survey,according to FIRE’s website.

Green light ratings are for schools whose policies uphold the First Amendment, but only 21 of the 437 schools evaluated this past year received a green light, Majeed said. That’s just shy of 5 percent.

“Red light policies are clearly unconstitutional,” Majeed said. “Yellow light speech codes are a little bit more ambiguous, often times they are vague in the way they are worded, and so they do encompass some protective speech, but it’s not as clearly restrictive as a red light speech code.”

FIRE works with schools to be sure their policies do not infringe on faculty members’ or students’ rights. While public schools are bound by the First Amendment, private institutions are not. However, FIRE examines the promises private schools make in their handbooks on free speech, and then evaluates the supporting policies to make sure they uphold those promises, Majeed said.

Todd Zywicki, foundation professor of law at George Mason University, spent five years trying to improve GMU’s speech code rating before finally receiving a green light rating.

While the president and provost supported his endeavors, Zywicki said he faced bureaucratic opposition. He said he discovered that speech code policies are often times not handled by the academic side of campus but rather by a bureaucrat in the dean of student life office, an official who might be “more concerned about kids not being upset than they are about academic values of free speech or free expression,” Zywicki told the Washington Examiner.

“To me this is really one of those no-brainer sorts of things and perhaps one of the most important things,” Zywicki said. “This is a core academic value, and it’s just a matter of principle.”

“There has to be a place in society where people can express their ideas even if other people don’t like it. And that’s what universities are supposed to be, and that’s the core mission more than anything else that I think of a university,” he added.

After seven years, Mike Adams, professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, won his case against that institution after the courts ruled he was denied a promotion because he criticized the university. Adams said he ultimately received his promotion, was awarded back-pay, and the school paid his attorney fees.

Adams said this is not just an isolated incident, and that schools all over the country are infringing on student and faculty rights.

“I think college campuses, which are supposed to be the quintessential marketplace of ideas, are substantially more notorious and prone to censorship than other environments,” Adams told theExaminer. “They’re supposed to be the leaders in free speech, and really they’re the leaders in censorship.”

He said a new culture of leftist ideas is prevalent on campuses where free speech is less important than whether certain speech offends people. However, Adams said he does not blame the liberals “because liberal presupposes a degree of tolerance.”

He said the problem now lies with the people who are trying to move the nation politically to the left but are not “dedicated to the idea of getting there through tolerance and free speech and open debate.”

Adams suggested that schools should install First Amendment centers that would “engage in correct measures” to audit administrators and keep an eye on speech code trials. He also said schools should hold First Amendment sensitivity training seminars for faculty, staff and students so people are more educated about what is accepted as free speech.

These professors would appear to have some reason for worrying about people’s tolerance for the First Amendment. According to the First Amendment Center, 38 percent of people polled in 2014 believe the First Amendment goes too far, up four points from 2013.

Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project