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FIRE to ‘Red Light’ Public Universities: Revise Your Unconstitutional Speech Codes

PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 2, 2016—Yet again, FIRE has delivered a warning to public colleges and universities with highly restrictive speech codes: Revise the policies or risk a First Amendment lawsuit and personal liability.

Yesterday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a national certified mailing to 111 of the country’s largest and most prestigious public colleges and universities. The colleges receiving the mailing earn FIRE’s poorest, red lightrating for clearly and substantially restricting student and faculty speech on campus. The list of letter recipients includes Clemson University, the University of Oregon, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Georgia, and the University of Kansas.

FIRE’s mailing reminds recipient institutions of U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Representative Bob Goodlatte’s August 2015 letter urging administrators at red light schools to revise policies that violate the First Amendment. Further, as yesterday’s mailing warns, university administrators who continue to violate clearly established law with respect to expressive rights risk losing their “qualified immunity”—meaning they could be held personally liable for monetary damages in a student or faculty member’s lawsuit.

“Despite Chairman Goodlatte’s letter and FIRE’s advocacy, far too many of America’s public colleges and universities still restrict campus expression with blatantly unconstitutional policies,” said FIRE Director of Policy Reform Azhar Majeed. “Administrators at these schools can no longer claim they are unaware that their policies violate First Amendment rights. FIRE’s message is clear: Failing to revise unconstitutional speech codes can result in a loss in court and personal liability.”

For nearly three decades, federal and state courts have consistently struck down campus speech codes on First Amendment grounds. Developments in recent student and faculty free speech cases continue to reaffirm these decisions.

This year, FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project (SUFS), which aims to eliminate speech codes at public colleges and universities nationwide, had a ruling in one of its lawsuits that went a step further in ensuring First Amendment rights are respected on campus. A district court judge in the SUFS lawsuit against Iowa State University (ISU) suggested that the administrators involved could be held personally liable for monetary damages for violating the free speech rights of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML ISU).

“Rather than run the risk of being held personally liable, administrators should take this opportunity to be proactive and revise their institutions’ speech codes,” said Majeed. “FIRE is here to help. In the past two years, FIRE has worked with 11 different colleges and universities to reform all of their speech codes and earn our highest, ‘green light’ rating.”

FIRE collaborates with college and university officials frequently to reform speech codes. In addition to the 11 institutions that have worked with FIRE in the last two years to earn a green light rating, FIRE has worked with a total of 62 colleges and universities since the beginning of 2015 to revise at least one speech code at each school.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.

Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

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