FIRE is proud to offer the only database of United States college speech policies, the Spotlight Database. FIRE rates over 400 of the nation’s top colleges and universities, so navigating the system can be difficult. With that in mind, we present the following guide to using our database.
FIRE’s Speech Code Ratings
Next to each school in our database, you will see a colored traffic light—red, yellow, green, or gray (for those universities not rated by FIRE, as explained in detail below). This is FIRE’s Speech Code Rating System, which informs you of FIRE’s opinion of the degree to which free speech is curtailed at a particular institution.
The Speech Code Rating System applies equally to public and most private universities. While private institutions are not directly legally bound to uphold the Constitution, those that promise debate and freedom are morally bound—and may be contractually bound, depending on the circumstances—to uphold the fundamental principles of free speech and of academic freedom, principles that underlie the First Amendment. Read more on the distinction between public and private schools.
A “red light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A “clear” restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression. In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied.
When a university restricts access to its speech-related policies by requiring a login and password, it denies prospective students and their parents the ability to weigh this crucial information. At FIRE, we consider this action by a university to be deceptive and serious enough that it alone warrants a “red light” rating.
A “yellow light” institution is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. For example, a ban on “posters containing references to alcohol or drugs” violates the right to free speech because it unambiguously restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, but its scope is very limited.
Alternatively, a policy banning “verbal abuse” could be applied to prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech, but is not a clear violation because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as threats of violence or harassment as defined in the common law. In other words, the extent of the threat to free speech depends on how such a policy is applied.
If a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech, that college or university receives a “green light.” A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression. It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.
FIRE believes that free speech is not only a moral imperative, but also an essential element of a college education. However, private universities are just that—private associations—and as such, they possess their own right to free association, which allows them to prioritize other values above the right to free speech if they wish to do so. Therefore, when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE warns prospective students and faculty members of this fact.
Accessing a School’s Policies
When you select an institution, you will be directed to the school page for that college or university. Underneath the school’s basic information, you will find tabs “Cases,” “Speech Codes,” “Media Coverage,” and “Commentary.” To see the school’s speech-related policies, click on the “Speech Codes” tab, and beneath that tab will display the institution’s policies concerning free speech. For each speech code, you will see a relevant excerpt of the policy in question, and a link below that to a PDF of the full policy. Clicking “Read More” will take you to the full policy.
The policies are sorted by rating: red light policies first, then yellow, then green. If a school is “not rated” by FIRE, the school’s policies will also display as “not rated.”
Broadly speaking, there are two types of speech-related policies: advertised commitments to free expression and restrictions on expressive rights. FIRE further subdivides restrictions on expressive rights into the following categories:
Policies on tolerance, respect, and civility
Policies on ‘bias’ and ‘hate speech’
Protest and demonstration policies
- Internet usage policies
Ready to get going? Great! Start by searching for your school in the Spotlight Database.