Most college students in the United States should be able to expect that freedom of expression will be upheld on their campuses. Public institutions are legally bound by the First Amendment, and the vast majority of private institutions promise their students free speech rights. However, FIRE’s annual review of our Spotlight database of speech codes reveals most schools maintain policies that infringe on those rights.
Of the 486 schools included in FIRE’s Spotlight database, 94 earn an overall “red light” rating for maintaining policies that clearly and substantially restrict free speech. 324 earn an overall “yellow light” rating for maintaining policies that impose vague regulations on expression. Just 60 schools earn an overall “green light” rating for maintaining policies that do not seriously imperil free expression. Eight schools earn a “Warning” rating because they do not promise students free speech rights at all.
Below, you can learn more about the methodology, major findings, and the most common types of speech codes FIRE found and how to fix them.
If you’d like to encourage a school you care about to revise its speech codes, FIRE is here to help! For more information, contact: email@example.com.
FIRE rated 375 four-year public institutions and 111 top private institutions on the extent to which their written regulations on student expression restrict free speech.
A red light institution maintains at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, or bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.
A yellow light institution maintains policies that could too easily be applied to suppress protected speech, or maintains policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.
If FIRE finds that a university’s written policies do not seriously threaten campus expression, we award it a green light rating. (The speech code ratings do not take into account a university’s “as-applied” violations of student speech rights or other cases of censorship. For a look at the campus climate at top colleges that incorporates such factors, view FIRE’s annual College Free Speech Rankings.
When a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE gives it a Warning rating to warn prospective students and faculty members of this fact.
The percentage of schools earning an overall red light rating increased for the first time in 15 years, from 18.5% last year to 19.3% this year (13.9% of public schools and 37.8% of private schools). This reverse in progress was caused, in part, by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which adopted a new, restrictive harassment policy that caused all of its rated institutions to be downgraded to an overall red light rating.
66.7% of institutions now earn an overall yellow light rating (70.7% of public schools and 53.2% of private schools).
FIRE was pleased to welcome the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the University of South Florida to the green light list this year, bringing the total number of overall green light schools to an all-time high of 60 (14.9% of public schools and 3.6% of private schools).
Eight schools, or 1.6%, earn a Warning rating. Six private schools and two public military academies earn this rating for clearly placing other values above free expression rights.
In contrast to restrictive speech codes, 92 university administrations or faculty bodies have now adopted free speech policy statements modeled after the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (the “Chicago Statement”), actively committing their institutions to upholding freedom of expression. This year, lawmakers and university regents took action to enshrine a commitment to free expression in official policy at public institutions in the state of Ohio and at all University of Texas institutions, respectively.
Common speech codes and how to fix them
Below are some of the most common types of restrictive speech codes FIRE found while reviewing colleges for this report. “FIRE’s Model Code of Student Conduct” and “Model Speech Policies for College Campuses” webpages provide examples of how to regulate these areas without infringing on speech.
Harassment and bullying policies
Harassment isn’t protected by the First Amendment, but schools typically define harassment and bullying so broadly that their policies encompass protected speech. For example, Adams State University defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is of a sexual nature or is based on a person’s actual or perceived sex, gender,” or other enumerated category, including “verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
To protect free speech, schools must use the Supreme Court’s standard for peer harassment in the educational setting: defining “harassment” as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
While a university has every right to promote a tolerant and respectful atmosphere on campus, a university that claims to respect free speech must not limit discourse to only the inoffensive and respectful. However, many schools have policies that effectively require compliance with certain civility standards. Evergreen State College goes so far as to say: “Civility is not just a word; it must be present in all our interactions.”
Schools should use clearly aspirational language when discussing civility to avoid creating a chilling effect on free speech.
Bias reporting policies
Most campuses have some form of a “bias incident” reporting system: a mechanism for reporting speech or conduct motivated by bias toward a particular characteristic. While some of these policies only exist to provide support to those impacted by such incidents, most impose vague consequences for engaging in what is often constitutionally protected expression.
For example, Bates College states that examples of bias incidents include “hate speech,” “sexist jokes,” and “disparaging remarks on social media sites.” The college explicitly “reserves the right to address bias incidents that do not rise to the level of a policy violation” through actions such as “education and training,” “remedial and supportive actions,” and “other Informal Resolution mechanisms.”
Instead of arbitrarily punishing students for speech that violates overbroad policies, colleges should make clear their bias reporting teams will not investigate or discipline protected speech, and that any participation in informal resolution mechanisms like “education and training” is voluntary.
Protest and demonstrations policies
Universities may enact reasonable, narrowly tailored “time, place, and manner” restrictions that prevent demonstrations from unduly interfering with the educational process. Far too many schools, however, regulate events on the basis of content or viewpoint, or maintain regulations that place prior restraints or other unreasonable burdens on public expression.
The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, for example, tells students they must inform campus police 48 hours in advance of using the university’s sole area for demonstrations.
Institutions must instead allow students to spontaneously use publicly available, outdoor areas of the campus for public expression. Without the ability to do so, students are prevented from responding to new and unfolding events.
Posting and distribution of materials policies
Universities often unreasonably restrict posting or distributing of written materials on campus. Kean University, for one, requires students to reserve an area for distributing materials five days in advance of the activity.
Students must not be prevented from spontaneously distributing materials on campus, nor may they be prevented from posting written materials without first seeking permission.
Technology usage policies
Universities are no more permitted to infringe on free speech online than on the campus quad. Nonetheless, regulations on online speech are frequently in far worse shape than policies governing in-person speech, often placing impermissible restrictions on the content or viewpoint of expression.
Delaware State University’s policy, for example, bans users of any university technology, including the campus internet, from causing “offense to others” and even from causing “embarrassment” to the university itself.
Instead, colleges should only ban speech and conduct that is not protected under First Amendment standards, such as harassment and true threats.
Adams State University Student Handbook, ADAMS ST. UNIV. at 13, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8wl1ArVquL1YWY5LVVScFJFS00/ (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).
Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999).
Evergreen’s Social Contract, EVERGREEN ST. UNIV., https://www.evergreen.edu/about/evergreens-social-contract (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).
 Policy: Section V, BATES COLLEGE, https://www.bates.edu/here-to-help/policies/equal-opportunity-policy/policy-section-v (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).
See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989).
Public Forum Use of University Facilities, UNIV. OF MASSACHUSETTS DARTMOUTH (Aug. 24, 2010), https://www.umassd.edu/policies/active-policy-list/facilities-operations-and-construction/public-forum-use-of-university-facilities.
Distribution of Literature Policy, KEAN UNIV., https://www.kean.edu/offices/policies/distribution-literature-policy (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).
Acceptable Use Policy, DELAWARE ST. UNIV. at 3 (July 11, 2011), available at https://www.desu.edu/about/administration/university-policies-procedures/information-technology-policies.
Schools By Rating
|Adams State University||Alabama A&M University||Amherst College||Bates College|
|Bemidji State University||Boston College||Boston University||California Institute of Technology|
|California State University - Dominguez Hills||California State University - Fresno||California State University - Monterey Bay||Carleton College|
|Case Western Reserve University||Cheyney University of Pennsylvania||Chicago State University||Clark University|
|Colgate University||College of the Holy Cross||Connecticut College||Dakota State University|
|Delaware State University||Dickinson College||Drexel University||Eastern Illinois University|
|Evergreen State College||Fordham University||Fort Lewis College||Framingham State University|
|Furman University||Georgetown University||Grinnell College||Haverford College|
|Howard University||Indiana State University||Kean University||Lafayette College|
|Lake Superior State University||Lehigh University||Lewis-Clark State College||Lincoln University|
|Louisiana State University - Baton Rouge||Loyola Marymount University||Macalester College||Marquette University|
|Metropolitan State University||Middlebury College||Mount Holyoke College||Nicholls State University|
|Northeastern University||Northern Vermont University||Northwestern University||Portland State University|
|Princeton University||Reed College||Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||Rice University|
|Saint Cloud State University||Santa Clara University||Shawnee State University||Skidmore College|
|Southern Illinois University at Carbondale||Southern Illinois University Edwardsville||Southern Oregon University||Southwest Minnesota State University|
|St. Olaf College||State University of New York - Fredonia||State University of New York - New Paltz||Stevens Institute of Technology|
|Tennessee State University||The College of New Jersey||Troy University||Tufts University|
|Tulane University||Union College||University of Alaska Anchorage||University of Alaska Fairbanks|
|University of Central Oklahoma||University of Houston-Downtown||University of Louisiana at Monroe||University of Louisiana Lafayette|
|University of Massachusetts at Lowell||University of Miami||University of Notre Dame||University of Texas at Dallas|
|University of Washington||University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh||University of Wyoming||Utah State University|
|Valdosta State University||Villanova University||Virginia State University||Western Michigan University|
|Westfield State University||Winona State University|
|Alabama State University||American University||Angelo State University||Arkansas State University|
|Athens State University||Auburn University Montgomery||Ball State University||Bard College|
|Barnard College||Baruch College||Black Hills State University||Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania|
|Boise State University||Bowdoin College||Bowling Green State University||Brandeis University|
|Bridgewater State University||Brooklyn College, City University of New York||Brown University||Bryn Mawr College|
|Bucknell University||California Maritime Academy||California Polytechnic State University||California State Polytechnic University, Pomona|
|California State University - Bakersfield||California State University - Channel Islands||California State University - Chico||California State University - East Bay|
|California State University - Fullerton||California State University - Long Beach||California State University - Los Angeles||California State University - Northridge|
|California State University - Sacramento||California State University - San Bernardino||California State University - San Marcos||California State University - Stanislaus|
|Cameron University||Carnegie Mellon University||Central Connecticut State University||Central Michigan University|
|Central Washington University||Centre College||Christopher Newport University||Clemson University|
|Coastal Carolina University||Colby College||College of Charleston||Colorado College|
|Colorado School of Mines||Colorado State University||Colorado State University Pueblo||Columbia University|
|Cornell University||Dartmouth College||Davidson College||DePaul University|
|DePauw University||East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania||East Tennessee State University||Eastern Michigan University|
|Eastern New Mexico University||Eastern Washington University||Ferris State University||Fitchburg State University|
|Florida A&M University||Florida Atlantic University||Florida Gulf Coast University||Florida International University|
|Fort Hays State University||Franklin & Marshall College||Frostburg State University||George Washington University|
|Georgia Gwinnett College||Georgia Institute of Technology||Georgia Southern University||Georgia State University|
|Gettysburg College||Governors State University||Grambling State University||Grand Valley State University|
|Hamilton College||Harvard University||Harvey Mudd College||Henderson State University|
|Humboldt State University||Hunter College, City University of New York||Idaho State University||Illinois State University|
|Indiana University - Bloomington||Indiana University - Kokomo||Indiana University - Purdue University Columbus||Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis|
|Indiana University of Pennsylvania||Indiana University South Bend||Indiana University, East||Indiana University, Northwest|
|Indiana University, Southeast||Iowa State University||Jacksonville State University||James Madison University|
|Johns Hopkins University||Kennesaw State University||Kent State University||Kentucky State University|
|Kenyon College||Knox College||Kutztown University of Pennsylvania||Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania|
|Longwood University||Louisiana Tech University||Mansfield University of Pennsylvania||Marshall University|
|Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||Metropolitan State University of Denver||Miami University of Ohio|
|Michigan State University||Middle Georgia State University||Middle Tennessee State University||Millersville University of Pennsylvania|
|Missouri State University||Missouri University of Science & Technology||Montana State University||Montana Tech of the University of Montana|
|Montclair State University||Morehead State University||Murray State University||New College of Florida|
|New Jersey Institute of Technology||New Mexico State University||New York University||Norfolk State University|
|North Carolina A&T State University||North Dakota State University||Northeastern Illinois University||Northern Illinois University|
|Northern Kentucky University||Northern Michigan University||Northwestern Oklahoma State University||Northwestern State University|
|Oakland University||Oberlin College||Occidental College||Ohio University|
|Oklahoma State University - Stillwater||Old Dominion University||Pennsylvania State University - University Park||Pennsylvania Western University, California|
|Pennsylvania Western University, Clarion||Pittsburg State University||Pitzer College||Pomona College|
|Queens College, City University of New York||Radford University||Rhode Island College||Rogers State University|
|Rowan University||Rutgers University - New Brunswick||Saginaw Valley State University||Salem State University|
|Sam Houston State University||San Diego State University||San Francisco State University||San Jose State University|
|Scripps College||Sewanee, The University of the South||Slippery Rock University||Smith College|
|Sonoma State University||South Dakota State University||Southeast Missouri State University||Southeastern Louisiana University|
|Southern Connecticut State University||Southern Methodist University||Southern Utah University||Stanford University|
|State University of New York - Binghamton||State University of New York - Oswego||State University of New York - Albany||State University of New York - University at Buffalo|
|State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry||Stockton University||Stony Brook University||State University of New York - Geneseo|
|Swarthmore College||Syracuse University||Tarleton State University||Temple University|
|Tennessee Technological University||Texas Southern University||Texas State University - San Marcos||Texas Tech University|
|Texas Woman's University||The City College of New York||The Ohio State University||The University of Virginia's College at Wise|
|Towson University||Trinity College||University of Akron||University of Alabama|
|University of Alabama at Birmingham||University of Alabama in Huntsville||University of Alaska Southeast||University of Arkansas - Fayetteville|
|University of California Berkeley||University of California Davis||University of California Irvine||University of California Merced|
|University of California Riverside||University of California San Diego||University of California Santa Barbara||University of California Santa Cruz|
|University of Central Arkansas||University of Central Florida||University of Central Missouri||University of Cincinnati|
|University of Colorado Denver||University of Connecticut||University of Delaware||University of Denver|
|University of Georgia||University of Hawaii at Manoa||University of Hawaii Hilo||University of Houston|
|University of Idaho||University of Illinois at Chicago||University of Illinois at Springfield||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign|
|University of Iowa||University of Kansas||University of Kentucky||University of Maine|
|University of Maine at Fort Kent||University of Maine Presque Isle||University of Mary Washington||University of Massachusetts - Amherst|
|University of Massachusetts - Boston||University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth||University of Memphis||University of Michigan - Ann Arbor|
|University of Michigan - Dearborn||University of Michigan - Flint||University of Minnesota - Morris||University of Minnesota - Twin Cities|
|University of Missouri - Columbia||University of Missouri - Kansas City||University of Missouri - St. Louis||University of Montana|
|University of Montana Western||University of Montevallo||University of Nebraska - Lincoln||University of Nebraska Omaha|
|University of Nevada, Las Vegas||University of Nevada, Reno||University of New Mexico||University of New Orleans|
|University of North Alabama||University of North Georgia||University of North Texas||University of Northern Colorado|
|University of Northern Iowa||University of Oklahoma||University of Oregon||University of Pennsylvania|
|University of Pittsburgh||University of Rhode Island||University of Richmond||University of Rochester|
|University of South Alabama||University of South Carolina Columbia||University of South Dakota||University of South Florida at Saint Petersburg|
|University of Southern California||University of Southern Indiana||University of Southern Maine||University of Texas at Arlington|
|University of Texas at Austin||University of Texas at El Paso||University of Texas at San Antonio||University of Texas at Tyler|
|University of Texas Rio Grande Valley||University of Toledo||University of Tulsa||University of Utah|
|University of Vermont||University of West Alabama||University of West Florida||University of West Georgia|
|University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire||University of Wisconsin - Green Bay||University of Wisconsin - La Crosse||University of Wisconsin - Madison|
|University of Wisconsin - Stout||University of Wisconsin Milwaukee||Utah Valley University||Vanderbilt University|
|Vassar College||Virginia Commonwealth University||Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University||Wake Forest University|
|Washington and Lee University||Washington State University||Washington University in St. Louis||Wayne State University|
|Weber State University||Wellesley College||Wesleyan University||West Chester University of Pennsylvania|
|West Virginia University||Western Illinois University||Western Kentucky University||Western Oregon University|
|Western Washington University||Wheaton College||Whitman College||Wichita State University|
|William Paterson University||Williams College||Winston-Salem State University||Worcester Polytechnic Institute|
|Worcester State University||Wright State University||Yale University||Youngstown State University|
|Alcorn State University||Appalachian State University||Arizona State University||Auburn University|
|Claremont McKenna College||Cleveland State University||Colorado Mesa University||Delta State University|
|Duke University||East Carolina University||Eastern Kentucky University||Elizabeth City State University|
|Emory University||Fayetteville State University||Florida State University||George Mason University|
|Jackson State University||Kansas State University||Keene State College||McNeese State University|
|Michigan Technological University||Mississippi State University||North Carolina Central University||North Carolina State University|
|Northern Arizona University||Oregon State University||PennWest Edinboro||Plymouth State University|
|Purdue University||Purdue University Fort Wayne||Purdue University Northwest||Shippensburg University|
|State University of New York - Brockport||State University of New York - Plattsburgh||Texas A&M University||The College of William & Mary|
|University of Arizona||University of California Los Angeles||University of Chicago||University of Colorado at Boulder|
|University of Florida||University of Louisville||University of Maryland - College Park||University of Mississippi|
|University of New Hampshire||University of North Carolina - Pembroke||University of North Carolina at Asheville||University of North Carolina Chapel Hill|
|University of North Carolina Charlotte||University of North Carolina Greensboro||University of North Carolina School of the Arts||University of North Carolina Wilmington|
|University of North Dakota||University of North Florida||University of South Florida||University of Southern Mississippi|
|University of Tennessee Knoxville||University of Virginia||Western Carolina University||Western Colorado University|
|Baylor University||Brigham Young University||Hillsdale College||Pepperdine University|
|Saint Louis University||United States Military Academy||United States Naval Academy||Yeshiva University|
Rating Changes, 2021–2022 Academic Year
|School||2020-2021 Rating||2021-2022 Rating|
|Bemidji State University||Yellow||Red|
|Dakota State University||Yellow||Red|
|Harvey Mudd College||Red||Yellow|
|Johns Hopkins University||Red||Yellow|
|Loyola Marymount University||Yellow||Red|
|Metropolitan State University||Yellow||Red|
|Nicholls State University||Yellow||Red|
|Saint Cloud State University||Yellow||Red|
|Southwest Minnesota State University||Yellow||Red|
|University of Central Missouri||Red||Yellow|
|University of Illinois at Chicago||Red||Yellow|
|University of North Carolina at Asheville||Yellow||Green|
|University of South Florida||Yellow||Green|
|University of Tulsa||Red||Yellow|
|University of Washington||Yellow||Red|
|Westfield State University||Yellow||Red|
|Winona State University||Yellow||Red|
Schools At Which A Faculty Or Administrative Body Has Adopted A Version Of The ‘Chicago Statement’
|Adrian College||American University||Arizona State University||Ashland University|
|Ball State University||Board of Regents: State of Iowa||Boston University||Bowling Green State University|
|Brandeis University||California State University Channel Islands||Case Western Reserve University||Chapman University|
|Christopher Newport University||City University of New York||Claremont McKenna College||Clark University|
|Cleveland State University||Colgate University||Colorado Mesa University||Columbia University|
|Denison University||DePauw University||Eckerd College||Franklin & Marshall College|
|George Mason University||George Washington University||Georgetown University||Gettysburg College|
|Jacksonville State University||Johns Hopkins University||Joliet Junior College||Jones County Junior College|
|Kansas Board of Regents||Kenyon College||Kettering University||King University|
|Louisiana State University System||Miami University||Michigan State University||Middle Tennessee State University|
|Nevada System of Higher Education||Northern Illinois University||Ohio State University||Ohio University|
|Ohio Wesleyan University||Princeton University||Purdue University System||Ranger College|
|Shawnee State University||Smith College||Snow College||South Dakota University System|
|Southern Methodist University||Southern Utah University||St. Mary's University||State University of New York - University at Buffalo|
|State University System of Florida||Stetson University||Suffolk University||Tennessee Technological University|
|The Citadel||University of Akron||University of Alabama System||University of Arizona|
|University of Arkansas at Little Rock||University of Cincinnati||University of Colorado System||University of Denver|
|University of Louisiana System||University of Maine System||University of Maryland||University of Massachusetts Boston|
|University of Minnesota||University of Missouri System||University of Montana||University of Nebraska System|
|University of North Carolina System||University of Richmond||University of Southern Indiana||University of Texas System|
|University of Toledo||University of Virginia||University of Virginia College at Wise||University of Wisconsin System|
|Utica College||Vanderbilt University||Washington and Lee University||Washington University in St. Louis|
|Wheaton College||Winthrop University||Wright State University||Youngstown State University|