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March 2021 Speech Code of the Month: Barnard College

Barnard College [REVISED]

Colleges usually earn a spot as FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for maintaining a policy that is plainly restrictive of student expression on its face, but this month is a little different — we’re concerned about college policies we can’t even view. 

Barnard College password-protects several of its speech codes, hiding them from prospective students and public scrutiny. For that reason, we’ve made it our Speech Code of the Month for March.

Password-protecting policies may not seem so bad at first. Current students can access them, and that’s who the policies regulate anyway. But that leaves an important group out of the picture: prospective students. Before choosing to enroll, individuals may want to review the policies at a particular school to make sure policies that could be applied to infringe on their rights are not in place. Schools that hide these policies from the public rob prospective students of that crucial opportunity, so we automatically give them our worst, “red light” rating, sight unseen. 

Barnard’s College Policies & Procedures webpage provides links to policies that regulate various areas of the university, but the majority of these links lead to the myBarnard online portal, which requires a Barnard username and password for access. We’re able to view the policy that regulates the use of information technology resources, for example, but the “Rules for Maintenance of Public Order” (which likely include regulations on protests), the “Posting Policy,” and the “Bias Related / Hate Crimes” policy are all restricted. 

The fact that the college hides these policies makes us suspicious about their content — if these policies respect students’ rights, what would there be to hide? But even if we were to find that they perfectly track First Amendment legal standards (though Barnard is a private institution, it does promise its students “the right to freedom of expression”), we can’t be sure that would last forever. 

A big reason we annually update all of the schools in FIRE’s Spotlight database of speech codes is that administrators frequently make substantive changes to policies. Our database serves as a one-stop shop for prospective and current students — as well as administrators — to review their school’s policies, but they’re robbed of that resource if we can’t update the entry due to password protection.

Out of the 478 colleges and universities in the Spotlight database, just three currently restrict policies from the public. (The other two schools are Connecticut College and Marquette University.) To live up to its free speech promises, Barnard must ditch this group of outliers and remove its password-protection. 

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