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REPORT: After 15-year decline, a rise in the number of colleges with the worst free speech rating
PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 13, 2022 — Christmas is coming, and it’s a “silent night” for free speech on many American campuses.
A new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression analyzed the speech codes of 486 American colleges and found that nearly 88% of them restrict free expression. FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2023 rates America’s top colleges and universities based on the extent to which their policies restrict student speech.
“Colleges have nothing to gain and everything to lose by maintaining policies that restrict free expression,” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s director of policy reform and the author of the report. “They waste time on investigations into protected speech and leave themselves vulnerable to litigation and attacks in the court of public opinion.”
- 94 colleges earn a “red light” rating: maintaining policies that clearly and substantially restrict free expression.
- 324 colleges earn a “yellow light” rating: maintaining policies that impose vague regulations on expression.
- 60 colleges earn a “green light” rating: maintaining policies that do not seriously imperil free expression.
- 8 colleges earn a “Warning” rating because they do not promise students free speech rights at all.
Two universities joined the ranks of green light schools this year: the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the University of South Florida. While none of the green light schools lost their status, 12 schools dropped from a yellow to a red light rating, and the percentage of red light schools rose by 0.8%, the first increase in 15 years.
The report also breaks down the six most common kinds of policies that chill expression. These include policies that unduly regulate campus protests and demonstrations, bias response programs that encourage students to report other students for constitutionally protected speech, and speech codes that fall short of the Supreme Court’s standard for harassment.
University policies on technology usage and online speech are often so restrictive that they’re downright patronizing. For example, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell forbids students from sending or viewing “offensive” material online: This ill-defined and subjective policy would be inappropriate for a class of middle schoolers, let alone for adult university scholars. This policy earned Lowell a red light rating and the title of FIRE’s August Speech Code of the Month.
Public universities in Ohio and Texas, however, became much friendlier to free speech this year. Ohio Senate Bill 135, which took effect in July, allows students to report free speech violations, while the University of Texas system adopted the “Chicago Statement,” a strong commitment to free speech. According to the report, 92 colleges and universities have now adopted policies modeled on the Chicago Statement.
In contrast, the Minnesota State system adopted an overbroad harassment policy that caused all the universities in the system to sink to a red light, part of the reason for the first uptick in the percentage of red light institutions since 2007.
Schools can improve their ratings by adopting FIRE’s Model Code of Student Conduct and FIRE’s Model Speech Policies for College Campuses. FIRE is also happy to work one-on-one with university administrators to reform speech codes — free of charge.
“FIRE is growing, and well-equipped to help colleges draft green light policies,” Beltz said. “On the other hand, we also have the resources to attack schools that fail to defend the expressive rights of their students and faculty.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
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