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Report: Campus speech codes decline for 10th straight year

One in three colleges surveyed maintain severely restrictive speech policies, but 90 percent of top colleges maintain policies that stifle speech to some degree.

PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 19, 2017 — For the 10th year in a row, the percentage of universities maintaining written policies that severely restrict students’ free speech rights has decreased. But despite a decade of free speech victories to eliminate the most egregious speech codes, more than 90 percent of universities still maintain at least one policy that either restricts protected speech or can too easily be interpreted to do so, according to a new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Released today, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2018: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses reports on written policies at 461 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities, all of which are accessible online in FIRE’s searchable Spotlight database. FIRE rates schools as “red light,” “yellow light,” or “green light” institutions based on how much, if any, protected speech their policies restrict.

Major findings from the report include:

  • Just under one third (32.3 percent) of surveyed institutions received FIRE’s poorest, red light rating for maintaining speech codes that both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. This year’s figure is seven percentage points lower than last year and almost 42 percentage points lower than in FIRE’s 2009 report.
  • Most institutions — 58.6 percent — receive a yellow light rating. While less restrictive than red light policies, yellow light policies still prohibit or have an impermissible chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.
  • Thirty-five institutions earned FIRE’s highest, green light rating for free speech in this year’s report. Since the report was written, two more universities have earned green light status, bringing the total to 37. Only eight institutions earned this rating in the 2009 report.

“More institutions than ever before understand the importance of free speech and are taking concrete steps to protect it,” said FIRE Vice President of Policy Research Samantha Harris. “There is still a lot of work to be done, though — and we look forward to working with more colleges and universities in the years to come.”

Other findings:

  • Roughly one in nine institutions maintains a “free speech zone” policy, through which student demonstrations and other expressive activities are quarantined to small or out-of-the-way areas of campus.
  • Twenty-seven schools or faculty bodies (seven more than last year) have adopted statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015.
  • Fully 30 percent of institutions maintain some form of bias response team tasked with identifying “bias” or “hate speech” on campus. These teams rely on students anonymously reporting other students for speech that, though subjectively “offensive,” is often fully protected by the First Amendment or institutional promises of free expression. More than half of private institutions surveyed have implemented bias response teams.

As Congress considers adding speech code reporting requirements to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, FIRE’s report informs the policy discussion with data and analysis on the prevalence and nature of speech codes.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2018: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses can be read in full on FIRE’s website.

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.


Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

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