Last week, FIRE released our third annual College Free Speech Rankings, which use survey data from nearly 45,000 students to assess the climate for free speech at 203 of the country’s top colleges and universities.
Skidmore College landed all the way down in 199th place.
The College Free Speech Rankings are determined using ten different sub-components, including surveyed students’ openness to discuss controversial topics, and their perception of administrative support for free speech. But one factor I’d like to highlight, which contributed to Skidmore’s bottom-of-the-barrel rating, is the college’s speech code rating from FIRE.
Skidmore earns FIRE’s worst, “red light” rating, which usually means a school has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts free speech. However, we also give schools an overall red light rating when they password protect policies that regulate expression. Skidmore password protects its guidelines for organizing a campus protest or demonstration (linked on this page), so we’re making it FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for September.
That might seem a bit harsh — after all, the hidden policy could be great and speech-protective, for all we know. But password protection means that only users with a college username and password are able to see the policies. If prospective students can’t review a college’s policies before deciding to enroll, they won’t know what they’re signing up for. This is especially important at a private school like Skidmore, as it isn’t bound by the First Amendment (though it does promise students free speech rights in other, publicly accessible policies).
High school students look forward to exercising their free speech rights once they graduate, given how much more expansive those rights are in college than in the high school context. But those looking into attending Skidmore have no idea whether the school’s locked-down policy will restrict expressive activities that are protected under First Amendment standards. Those hidden guidelines could say students can only protest in a small, out of the way area on campus, or that they need to get permission far in advance before conducting a protest.
College administrators may not be aware of the impact of password protecting policies. When FIRE made Barnard College Speech Code of the Month for March of last year for password protecting some of its policies, the school admirably responded by quickly adjusting its policy website to ensure the public could access those critical documents, showing it was not the intent of the school to hide the ball.
However, when we contacted Skidmore last year to ask about the password protection, the college didn’t respond. We’re hoping this Speech Code of the Month designation will get its attention.
FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings are designed to help prospective students compare the sort of experience they may have at various colleges. Skidmore can improve its rank — and help prospective students make an informed choice — by eliminating its restrictions.