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Speech Code Countdown: ‘U.S. News’ Top 25 College Rankings, Numbers 19-11

FIRE’s U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” Countdown continues today. We’re giving you a school-by-school analysis of just how well America’s “Best Colleges” do when it comes to protecting free speech on campus. Unfortunately, in today’s crop of top campuses, troubling speech codes abound.

As part of FIRE’s fresh look at U.S. News’ top-ranked colleges, we used information from our Spotlight speech code database as well as information on other headline-making free speech news that applicants should know about before they apply to a given school. FIRE rates schools’ speech codes using a traffic light-inspired system. A “red light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A “yellow light” institution is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating goes to institutions with policies that do not seriously imperil speech.

If you missed the first part of the countdown—and our explanation of why it’s so important to consider a school’s commitment to free expression before you go—check it out here.

Now, on with the countdown:

19. Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis earns FIRE’s yellow light rating for policies that threaten protected speech, including a ban on postings that include “any references to alcoholic beverages or other drugs”; the “use of inappropriate body images to advertise events”; and the posting of “sexist or discriminatory materials” in dormitories as identified at “the discretion of the Residential Life staff.”

15. Vanderbilt University (Tie)

Vanderbilt also gets a yellow light rating for its speech codes. The university bans any “lewd or lascivious conduct or expression,” which could include not only legally obscene expression but also speech that, while sexual in nature, is constitutionally protected.  The university also maintains an ambiguous policy on sexual harassment, which contains both a traditional definition of hostile environment sexual harassment as well as a much broader definition of sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” It is unclear how Vanderbilt students, who are not lawyers trained in the nuances of sexual harassment law, are expected to understand what they can and cannot say under this policy.

15. University of Notre Dame (Tie)

Notre Dame gets a red light for its IT policy that prohibits using the university’s computing resources to view or send any “offensive material.” The university does not define what constitutes “offensive material,” leaving it to the complete discretion of administrators to determine what is and is not punishable under the policy.

15. Rice University (Tie)

Rice’s Appropriate Use of Computer Resources policy earns the school a FIRE red light rating. The policy prohibits a wide range of online speech, including “profane language” and material that “panders to bigotry, sexism, or other forms of prohibited discrimination.”

15. Cornell University (Tie)

Cornell gets an overall red light for prohibiting protected speech as “sexual misconduct.” The university’s “examples of sexual misconduct” not only include protected speech like “derogatory” comments, but also unreasonably define misconduct by the listener’s reaction:

Examples of sexual misconduct: … Someone caused you to feel uncomfortable by making gender-biased or derogatory comments in your residence hall, lab, dining hall, classroom, club, team, sorority or fraternity, or place of employment. [Emphasis added.]

The school also maintains several yellow light policies, including a protest and demonstration policy requiring students to register any outdoor event that could be “controversial.”

14. Brown University

FIRE has chronicled numerous free speech issues at Brown over the years. Recent examples include a 2014 heckler’s veto incident involving New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Brown also earns a yellow light rating for several overly restrictive policies, such as the school’s ban on using “computing services and facilities for political purposes.”

12. Northwestern University (Tie)

Northwestern earns FIRE’s yellow light rating for a number of problematic speech codes. Among other things, several university policies mandate “civility,” which unacceptably interferes with students’ ability to convey their messages as they see fit.  The university also asks students to report all “bias incidents” to the administration, with a bias incident defined broadly as an “act of con­duct, speech, or expression to which a bias motive is evident as a contributing factor (regardless of whether the act is criminal).”  Yet another policy prohibits “[t]he distribution of leaflets and hand bills at any campus location” without prior administrative approval.

12. California Institute of Technology (Tie)

Cal Tech earns FIRE’s yellow light rating for three policies that could punish protected speech. The university prohibits, vaguely, any action that “places an unreasonable emotional burden on another person.” Moreover, the institute’s harassment policy prohibits not only actual harassment but also any behavior “evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, gender expression or identity, national origin or ethnic group, religious belief, sexual orientation, age, or disability.”

11. Dartmouth College

Dartmouth earns FIRE’s yellow light rating for its policy on bias and hate speech, which encourages students to report instances of perceived bias including “telling jokes,” “stereotyping,” and “avoiding or excluding others.”  This vaguely worded policy has the potential for administrative abuse.

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of our U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” Countdown—we’ll be tackling the top 10. In the meantime, visit our Spotlight page to see how FIRE rates your school and learn more about speech codes and our rating methodology.

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