Pope Center Report Reveals Threats to Free Speech at North Carolina’s Universities

February 18, 2010

The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, announced yesterday the release of its report on the state of free speech on North Carolina’s college campuses (PDF). The report, titled Do North Carolina Students Have Freedom of Speech?, examines the publicly available speech policies and regulations at each of the public and private universities in North Carolina to reveal which institutions provide their students with the same freedom of expression to which they are entitled in society at large and which ones fall short of doing so. For the report, the Pope Center relied on FIRE’s Spotlight ratings for North Carolina’s institutions of higher education, as well as additional research performed by FIRE for those colleges in North Carolina that are not in our Spotlight database. In grading schools on the extent to which their policies provide or deny freedom of speech, the Pope Center’s report uses the very same rating system that FIRE employs in Spotlight.

Sadly, the report reveals that none of the 55 colleges and universities in North Carolina earns a green light for its speech regulations. FIRE awards a green light to those schools that do not maintain any policies seriously imperiling speech. Rather, of the 55 schools surveyed, a far-too-high 34 (or approximately 62 percent) earned a red-light rating and an additional 16 (approximately 29 percent) earned a yellow-light rating, while 5 private institutions were designated as “not rated.” (As we explain on our Spotlight page, when a private university states clearly and consistently that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE does not rate that university.)

The report’s findings are similar to the results of FIRE’s annual speech code reports. Our latest report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2010: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses (PDF), found that of the 375 colleges and universities surveyed nationwide, 71 percent received a red-light rating, while 24 received a yellow light and only 3 percent received a green light. In other words, the same national trends that FIRE sees every year in regard to the prevalence of campus speech codes certainly exist in the state of North Carolina.

Given this record, it is little wonder that the Pope Center’s report concludes:

This report illustrates the unfortunate reality that North Carolina’s institutions of higher education are, in many cases, failing to uphold their promises of free expression, assembly, and religion to students and faculty. In fact, no institutions in North Carolina have “green light” ratings.

The report also highlights a few of the particularly egregious speech codes turned up by FIRE’s research, and some of these would seem to have serious Speech Code of the Month potential:

The following are examples of policies in force at North Carolina’s colleges and universities:

  • Campbell University prohibits “obscene or indecorous language or conduct indicating his/her disapproval of any matter.”
  • UNC Greensboro “will not tolerate any harassment of, discrimination against, or disrespect for persons.”
  • Davidson College bans “innuendoes,” “teasing,” “jokes,” and “comments or inquiries about dating.”
  • Livingstone College prohibits any conduct or expression that is “offensive or annoying to others.”

Given the existence of these and similar speech codes at North Carolina’s colleges and universities, the Pope Center’s report will hopefully bring some much-needed attention and scrutiny to the problem. Indeed, the report expresses the belief that “one way to combat these trends is to expose illiberal university policies and practices to public criticism.” Hopefully, public response to the release of the Pope Center’s report will convince more than a few of the schools to rethink and ultimately rescind their speech codes. If so, the Pope Center will have made an even more valuable contribution than it already has toward ridding North Carolina’s campuses of speech codes.