Progress in the Long War Against Campus Speech Codes

August 14, 2012

Amidst a number of troubling threats to free speech on campus, we bring you some good news: since last September, thirteen more colleges and universities have eliminated their red light speech codes. This continues an encouraging trend that we documented in our most recent report on the state of free speech on campus. In that report, we announced that the percentage of institutions maintaining red light speech codes had declined for the fourth year in a row to 65%, down from a high point of 75%. 

This figure is still wholly unacceptable: it is unconscionable that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s leading colleges and universities severely restrict students’ right to free speech, and FIRE will work tirelessly until that figure reaches zero. But it is deeply gratifying to see our many efforts—and the efforts of liberty-minded students and administrators around the country—paying off. Many of the policy changes in question came after FIRE sent two certified mailings to red light public universities (one in late 2008 and another in late 2010) notifying them that, because of recent developments in the law, their continued maintenance of unconstitutional speech codes could subject administrators to personal liability. Other revised policies were former "Speech Codes of the Month." Perhaps most encouraging, some of the revisions came as the result of deeply productive collaborations between FIRE and university administrators who genuinely wanted to ensure their students’ free speech rights. 

The good news is that California State University – San Bernardino, Colorado Mesa University, George Mason University, Lewis-Clark State College, Michigan State University, North Dakota State University, University of California – Riverside, University of North Texas, University of Washington, and University of West Alabama all scrapped their red light speech codes and now earn an improved, yellow light rating from FIRE. 

Two universities—Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi—scrapped ALL of their speech codes and became part of a select group of just 16 universities (out of nearly 400 surveyed) to earn FIRE’s highest, green light rating. 

Of course, much work remains to be done. Even as many universities are improving their speech codes, several regulatory and legislative developments threaten to turn back the clock on campus free speech. So the fight goes on, but it is important to pause and acknowledge this significant step forward. If this trend continues, it will be five years of decline in the percentage of colleges and universities severely restricting students’ free speech rights. And that is indeed a cause for celebration!