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FIRE’s annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report reveals 85% of colleges restrict protected speech

And anti-Semitism hearings have colleges reconsidering their speech codes — potentially making bad policies even worse
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FIRE’s annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report, released earlier this month, paints a dire picture of free speech on college campuses. 

In the 2024 report, FIRE rated the policies that regulate student expression at 489 public and private colleges and universities across the country using a traffic light-based scale. Policies earn a “red light” rating for clear and substantial restrictions on protected speech, a “yellow light” rating for more vague or narrow restrictions, and “green light” rating when they don’t pose serious restrictions on speech.

An alarming 85% of rated institutions earned an overall red light or yellow light. Even though the vast majority of private schools make clear commitments to protecting student free speech rights, they fare far worse than public institutions, with a full 36% earning FIRE’s worst, red light rating (compared to 15% of public schools). 

Why is getting student expression regulations right so important? Speech codes prevent the open inquiry and debate that colleges must foster to support their core mission: the advancement of knowledge. 

Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must enforce their conduct policies carefully and consistently to ensure students can safely take part in classes and campus activities.

This is the case whether or not institutions apply speech codes as restrictively as they’re written. For example, a student group reading a requirement to fill out a “Demonstration Permit Application form” at least seven days in advance may be discouraged from getting together and expressing themselves about breaking news on campus. Likewise, students whose viewpoints go against those of most other students on campus (and/or the views of the administration) may refrain from speaking if they see a ban on expression that could “cause offense to others.”

Were all this not bad enough, now some colleges are currently considering making their policies even less protective of free speech.

Last December’s Congressional hearing on “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism” raised questions — both on campus and off — about how speech is regulated at colleges and universities across the country. 

Critics accused witnesses who were the leaders of Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology of enforcing double standards at their institutions by adhering to First Amendment principles only when convenient. Some argued these institutions should punish political speech on grounds it is construable as “promoting genocide,” an outcome that, as FIRE explained, would likely suppress protected speech.

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Creating a “genocide” exception to free speech only opens the door to more speech restrictions and selective enforcement.

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Amid this widespread backlash, Penn announced it is reconsidering using the First Amendment to guide the application of its policies. Other schools, such as Stanford UniversityYale University, and Columbia University, similarly announced they would review how they regulate anti-Semitic speech under their policies. 

But the answer to the problem of applying the speech-regulation double standards that Harvard, Penn and MIT stood accused of using is not more censorship. Again, campus policies are already in poor shape when it comes to protecting speech. Bad policies encourage administrative abuse, and we have already seen a host of infringements on speech regarding the Israel-Hamas war over the past few months: 

  • New York University suggested it may be investigating a student who reacted to Hamas’ attack by saying, “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life” for “bias and/or discriminatory behavior.”
  • Columbia Law School failed to intervene when its Student Senate denied recognition to a pro-Israel student group.
  • Hunter College canceled a screening of the film, “Israelism,” a documentary critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, citing unspecified safety concerns and a desire to balance “free speech and academic freedom with the danger of antisemitic and divisive rhetoric.” 
  • Indiana University told Palestinian artist Samia Halaby it was canceling a planned exhibit of her work due to staff complaints about her pro-Palestinian advocacy on social media.
  • Cornell University announced a student would be “held fully accountable and appropriately sanctioned” for a social media post saying “Zionists must die.”

Instead of enforcing policies to limit speech during times of divisive expression on college campuses, administrators must align those policies with First Amendment principles and apply them consistently, taking action on problems arising from unprotected speech like harassment, discrimination, or true threats, and supporting the rights of students to use their own voices when confronted with views that that oppose or to which they object. 

FIRE is here to help them do just that. Our Policy Reform team is available to consult with administrators on ways to improve their policies, free of charge. And we have a host of educational materials available, including materials on free speech for orientation programs. 

In the meantime, we’ll be watching the schools that are enacting changes in response to recent events and keeping our Spotlight database updated for those who wish to see how their school currently stacks up. 

Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must enforce their conduct policies carefully and consistently to ensure students can safely take part in classes and campus activities. Maintaining and enforcing restrictive policies — and even publicly contemplating worsening them — only serves to chill the one thing that can bridge divides on contentious issues: freedom of expression.

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