Table of Contents

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2023

Red yellow and green lamps wrapped in the first amendment

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. 

Spotlight ratings by year

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: speechcodes@thefire.org.

Methodology

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. 

FIRE rated 375 four-year public institutions and 111 top private institutions

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.

Number of Green Light schools is up

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.

Major findings

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. 

The percentage of schools earning an overall red light rating increased for the first time in 15 years

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.

FIRE surveyed 486 schools

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.

FIRE’s Model Code of Student Conduct

FIRE’s Model Speech Policies for College Campuses

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

Civility policies

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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

Instead, colleges should only ban speech and conduct that is not protected under First Amendment standards, such as harassment and true threats.

Notes

[1]Adams State University Student Handbook, ADAMS ST. UNIV. at 13, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8wl1ArVquL1YWY5LVVScFJFS00/ (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).

[2]Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999).

[3]Evergreen’s Social Contract, EVERGREEN ST. UNIV., https://www.evergreen.edu/about/evergreens-social-contract (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).

[4] Policy: Section V, BATES COLLEGE, https://www.bates.edu/here-to-help/policies/equal-opportunity-policy/policy-section-v (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).

[5]Id.

[6]See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989).

[7]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.

[8]Distribution of Literature Policy, KEAN UNIV., https://www.kean.edu/offices/policies/distribution-literature-policy (last visited Nov. 29, 2022).

[9]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.

Appendix

Schools By Rating

Red

 

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    

Yellow

 

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

Green

 

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

Warning

 

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
Amherst College   Yellow   Red
Barnard College   Red   Yellow
Bemidji State University   Yellow   Red
Dakota State University   Yellow   Red
DePauw University   Red   Yellow
Harvey Mudd College   Red   Yellow
Haverford College   Yellow   Red
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