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Franklin & Marshall professor: Free-speech-friendly campuses start with education on speech codes and speech code reform

In a piece published in USA Today last Sunday, Franklin & Marshall College professor M. Alison Kibler argues that, as questions of free speech continue to arise on college campuses, students, faculty, and administrators must evaluate and revise college policies that regulate speech to meet First Amendment standards. FIRE agrees that working to eliminate restrictive speech codes and enacting speech-protective policies forms the foundation of a campus environment that protects students’ expressive rights. That’s why we stand ready to help students and administrators alike with the process.

In the piece, titled “Want to solve this ‘free speech’ debate on college campuses? Look to the handbook,” Professor Kibler explains that she asked her seminar students to study the rules regulating speech at Franklin & Marshall, as well as the legal standards for the areas they regulate. For example, her students read Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education — the decision in which the Supreme Court laid out the standard for student-on-student (or peer) harassment in the educational setting — and discovered that the college’s policy fails to include the decision’s key “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” components.

Indeed, the college’s sexual harassment policy earns FIRE’s worst, “red light” rating in our Spotlight speech code database because it clearly and substantially restricts free speech rights. FIRE has explained time and time again that, as the Court’s only decision to date regarding the substantive standard for peer harassment, Davis is controlling on this issue and must be the standard for institutions that claim to value free speech.

Kibler rightly points out that “[t]he campus speech controversies are more complicated than being for or against ‘free speech,’” and she argues that educating students on First Amendment issues informs how they will engage with controversies over speech in the future, and leads to positive changes in college policies.

I certainly can’t argue with her theory, since I first became interested in First Amendment issues when I studied my school’s speech codes in a college class, and I now work to revise speech codes in FIRE’s Policy Reform department.

FIRE’s Policy Reform department provides several resources for revising restrictive speech codes and enacting speech-protective policies. As Kibler indicates, it’s important to first become informed about your school’s policies. FIRE’s Spotlight database includes ratings for policies that regulate speech at over 450 colleges and universities across the nation so that students, faculty, and alumni can see if their schools restrict free speech. (Those seeking more information about a school that is not included in the database can request a rating from FIRE.)

Next, the Policy Reform team provides the tools necessary for revising the policies that do restrict free speech. Need advice on how to get your school’s policies revised to First Amendment standards? Reach out with your questions and we’ll be happy to provide you with the materials you need, whether you’re a current student, a faculty member, or an alum. As for administrators, FIRE’s Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies guide discusses the most common ways policies run afoul of the First Amendment, and how these restrictions can be revised. Further, FIRE is always happy to directly assist administrators by discussing recommended revisions to their policies.

In addition to providing assistance with fixing restrictive policies, FIRE also helps schools to adopt policies that affirm their commitment to First Amendment principles. For example, FIRE has urged institutions nationwide to adopt versions of the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, known as the “Chicago Statement.” To date, the Chicago Statement has been adopted by the administration or affirmed by the faculty body at nineteen colleges and universities, most recently at Georgetown University. These commitments set the tone for future policy revisions and adoptions at those schools and help prospective students determine where their free expression rights are clearly protected.

Through this three-pronged approach, FIRE’s Policy Reform team stands ready to assist students, faculty, alumni, and administrators with learning about their school’s policies, revising restrictive policies, and adopting free speech commitments. We hope more professors will follow Kibler’s lead in engaging students on this important topic.

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