2017 FIRE Report: 32 Percent of Colleges Restrict Free Speech

The report also found only 7.6 percent of surveyed schools have policies that do not seriously threaten the First Amendment rights of its individuals.
Published: December 20, 2017

American colleges and universities are doing a better job at protecting free speech on its campuses but there are still significant improvements needed, according to a new report.

An annual report, conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), reviewed 357 public colleges and 104 private colleges across the country. The report found that 32 percent of colleges have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts free speech.

FIRE, a non-profit group founded in 1999, aims to “defend and sustain individual rights at colleges and universities”, including freedom of speech, legal equality, due process and religious liberty, according to its website. FIRE also provides a free online First Amendment Library database, which includes over 900 Supreme Court cases regarding the First Amendment, in addition to other educational materials.

The annual report ranks each school based on its policies and labels each school as “red light”, “yellow light”, “green light” or “warning”, according to the study.

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A red light institution is one that has at least one policy that restricts freedom of speech. The study found 32.2 percent of schools fell under this category.

A yellow light institution is one that’s policies could be “interpreted as suppressing protected speech” or restrict “relatively narrow categories of speech”. Approximately 58.6 percent of schools received this rating this year.

A green light institution’s policies do not seriously threaten campus expression. Although it does not mean that the school actively supports free speech, it means its written policies do not “pose a serious threat to free speech”. An estimated 7.6 percent of schools received a green light rating.

An institution labeled “warning” means the school does not promise free speech, which is often associated with private universities that are able to prioritize other values above free speech. Only 7 surveyed schools met this criterion.

UC Riverside is an example of a school that received a red light rating. FIRE says UC Riverside had an “overly broad definition of sexual harassment”. The school’s Title IX office used offensive jokes and sexually suggestive comments as examples of harassment in its sexual violence brochure. A spokesman for the school says UCR removed those examples after revising its policy this year, according to The LA Times.

Report Finds Significant Improvements of Free Speech on College Campuses

Although the number of red light schools is high, this year’s report found significant improvements compared to previous years.

This year, 357 public universities were included in the report. The percentage of public universities with a red light rating dropped this year. Last year, 33.9 percent received this rating compared to 26 percent this year.

Overall, 26 percent of public universities received a red light rating, 65.3 percent received a yellow light rating and 8.7 percent received a green light rating. A university received a green light rating if it eliminated all rules regulating speech, according to the report.

Of the 104 private colleges that were reviewed, 53.9 percent received a red light rating, 35.6 percent received a yellow light rating and 3.8 percent received a green light rating. The red light rating at private colleges dropped from 58.7 percent last year.

The study also says that while private colleges are not legally obligated to protect First Amendment rights, most have “extensive promises of free speech to their students and faculty”.

The report indicates this is the tenth year in a row that red light schools have dropped. Samantha Harris, FIRE’S vice president of policy reform, says the drop in poor ratings can be attributed to increased lawsuits regarding campus speech restrictions and also congressional involvement in the issue, which is pushing universities to improve its policies.

Some additional findings from the report, some positive and some negative, include:

  • Thirty-five total institutions received a green light rating this year compared to 27 schools last year and only 8 schools in 2008.
  • Twenty-seven schools have adopted a free speech policy that mimics a policy adopted by the University of Chicago in 2015, a standout example of a green light school, according to the report. Last year, only 20 schools had adopted this policy.
  • Thirty percent of institutions have some form of a bias response team.
  • An estimated 1 in 10 institutions have “free speech zone” where “student demonstrations and other expressive activities are limited to small or out-of-the-way areas on campus.”

The full report and an entire list of the schools and its ratings can be found here.

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