Table of Contents

Virginia Commonwealth University earns top rating for free speech

The campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

RICHMOND, Va., Mar. 21, 2024 — VCU is the latest school to receive a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Overall green light ratings are reserved for institutions with no written policies that seriously threaten student speech. VCU is one of five schools in Virginia, and one of 64 nationwide, that earn this rating. 

“VCU appreciates recognition by FIRE’s green-light rating for VCU’s support of free speech on campus,” said VCU President Michael Rao. “A university’s role is to create an environment that supports free inquiry and free expression – we learn and grow through being free to examine new and different ideas. Even when we disagree, it’s important to treat other people how all human beings should be treated – with civility, professionalism and respect.”

VCU’s journey to a green light began in 2018 when an administrator asked FIRE how the school could better protect speech. FIRE Director of Policy Reform Laura Beltz met with administrators and pointed out six “yellow light” policies that imposed vague regulations on expression. The university quickly revised five policies governing dorm room decorations, computer use, student conduct, sexual harassment, and reservation and use of campus spaces. But VCU’s overbroad sex-based misconduct policy was not revised, so the school retained its overall yellow light. 

This remained the case until last fall, when Beltz reunited with VCU administrators following Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s summit on campus speech. The summit provided administrators with the opportunity to renew discussions with Beltz about revising the sex-based misconduct policy, the final obstacle between VCU and an overall green light.  

VCU’s speech-chilling policy on sex-based misconduct was hardly unique. According to FIRE’s latest Spotlight on Speech Codes report, sexual harassment policies are some of the most likely policies to endanger protected speech. VCU’s old policy included a laundry list of behaviors, such as mocking and name-calling, that the school might have classified — and therefore made punishable — as sexual harassment. It was both overbroad and vague. 

“A single insult or joke does not qualify as sexual harassment,” said Beltz. “It has to actually be a part of a pattern of conduct that meets that definition of harassment before being punishable. But that was not made clear under the old policy. For all students knew, they were always one strike away from getting in deep trouble on account of something they said.”

The revised policy includes the same list of conduct but makes it clear that those examples must meet the policy’s definition of harassment to be punishable. 

Thanks to VCU’s achievement, Virginia is now home to five green light institutions: Beyond VCU, the list includes the University of Virginia, George Mason University, the College of William and Mary, and Radford University. The commonwealth now has the third-most green light schools of any state, behind only North Carolina (15) and Mississippi (6). Nearly 75,000 Virginia undergraduates can speak freely, confident that their universities’ policies will protect their expression. 

FIRE is eager to help other schools in Virginia — and around the country — earn green light ratings. 

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 educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.

FIRE regularly works with colleges and universities — free of charge — to revise their policies to ensure they meet First Amendment standards. Contact FIRE’s campus Policy Reform team today at

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 28,000 students in more than 200 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities across VCU’s 12 schools and three colleges. For more, please visit

Jack Whitten, Media Relations Specialist, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

Michael R. Porter, APR, Associate Vice President for Public Relations, VCU: 804-828-1231;

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.