New Report: Three-Fifths of Colleges Seriously Restrict Free Speech on Campus

December 18, 2012

Red Light Speech Codes by State

PHILADELPHIA, December 18, 2012—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.orgreleased its 2013 report on campus speech codes today. More than three-fifths of the 409 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students. For the fifth consecutive year, however, this percentage has dropped. In another encouraging development, more schools eliminated all of their restrictive speech codes in 2012, earning FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating. The report also discusses concerns about new waves of campus censorship potentially facilitated by poorly crafted federal and state regulations and legislation regarding bullying and harassment.

Major findings include: 

  • More than three-fifths (62.1%) of the 409 schools surveyed have speech codes that clearly fail to meet First Amendment standards. (FIRE labels these “red light” speech codes.)
  • Nevertheless, this represents a nearly 13-point decline from five years ago, when policies at 75% of schools seriously restricted student speech.
  • For the first time in seven years, the percentage of red-light public schools (61.6%) fell below the percentage of red-light private schools (63.4%).
  • In more good news, the number of schools that do not maintain any speech codes has nearly doubled in the last five years, increasing from eight to 15 schools.
  • Virginia was the best state for free speech on campus, with 37.5% of schools rated earning a green light and only 25% earning a red light. Illinois and Texas were among the worst states, with 100% and 87.5% red-light schools, respectively.
  • In Mississippi, both the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University eliminated all of their speech codes this past year, earning green-light ratings from FIRE.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2013: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses reports on policies at America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities. This year’s report shows that many of the nation’s top institutions continue to place substantial restrictions on students’ right to free speech:

  • Harvard University prohibits actions that “demean” others based on a variety of personal characteristics, as well as “[b]ehavior evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, ethnic group, religious belief, or sexual orientation.”
  • Princeton University prohibits verbal behavior “which demeans … or injures another because of personal characteristics or beliefs or their expression.”
  • Columbia University prohibits “Belittling remarks about a person’s gender or belittling remarks about a person’s sexual orientation based in gender-stereotyping,” and “inappropriate sexual innuendoes or humor,” including over “email, the Internet, or other forms of digital media.”

FIRE Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris said, “FIRE is happy that speech codes have again declined, but it is hard to feel too good when so many students are still living with censorship. We will continue our work until campus censorship is a thing of the past.”

All of the policies cited in the report are accessible online in FIRE’s searchable speech code database, Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource. Individuals interested in drawing attention to their institutions’ policies can easily do so by adding FIRE’s Speech Code Widget to their blog or website. Simple instructions for adding the widget are located here.

FIRE is a nonprofit 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

Samantha Harris, Director of Speech Code Research, FIRE: 215-717-3473;