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REPORT: Restrictions on Campus Speech Rights Hit New Low, But Federal Pressure Threatens Progress

December 10, 2015

PHILADELPHIA, December 10, 2015—For the first time since the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) began tracking speech codes on campus, less than half of America’s colleges maintain policies that severely restrict students’ right to free speech, according to the findings of a new report released today.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2016: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses reports on policies at 440 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities, all of which are accessible online in FIRE’s searchable Spotlight speech code database. The report’s findings were first reported in an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal.

“For the eighth consecutive year, we have seen a decline in campus speech codes, and the percentage of schools maintaining the most restrictive policies is now below 50 percent,” said FIRE Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris. “This is exciting news, but we must remain vigilant. While many universities have revised speech codes, an increasing number are adopting more restrictions on speech under pressure from the Department of Education. These hard-fought gains for student and faculty speech rights could be reversed if the federal government is left unchecked.”

Major findings from Spotlight on Speech Codes 2016 include:

As the report details, however, there are still serious threats to free speech on campus:

  • FIRE downgraded 10 universities from a “yellow light” rating to our worst, red light rating for adopting overly restrictive definitions of sexual harassment that infringe on free speech rights, as recommended by the federal government.  
  • Private universities earning a red light rating increased from 58.7 percent last year to 60.6 percent this year, largely due to pressure from the federal government. While the federal government’s intervention has thus far been limited primarily to campus sexual harassment policies, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that the Department of Education “want[s] to do more” in response to recent racial tensions on campus. If the department’s actions with regard to racial harassment parallel those it has taken with regard to sexual harassment, this could lead to additional restrictions on protected speech in the future.

“Despite the steady reduction in speech codes over the past eight years, FIRE continues to see an unacceptable number of students and faculty being punished for constitutionally protected expression,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “It’s vital that students, alumni, faculty, and free speech advocates across the country continue vigorously opposing speech restrictions on campus and fighting back when universities—even in the absence of a written policy—decide to silence or punish protected speech. ”

FIRE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org