FIRE Report: 59% of Colleges Restrict Students’ First Amendment Rights

PHILADELPHIA — A new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reveals that 59% of more than 400 colleges and universities surveyed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ speech rights.

The report titled, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2014: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses” reports on policies at 427 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities. According to a press release issued by the organization, this year’s report shows that many universities, including public universities bound by the First Amendment, continue to place substantial restrictions on students’ right to free speech. For example:

  • The University of South Carolina prohibits “teasing,” “ridiculing,” and “insulting.”
  • The University of Connecticut requires that “[e]very member of the University shall refrain from actions that intimidate, humiliate, or demean persons or groups, or that undermine their security or self-esteem.”
  • Florida State University bans any “unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate, or irrelevant sexual or gender-based behaviors, actions or comments.”

FIRE labels schools that have speech codes that clearly and substantially restrict protected speech as “red light” schools, while schools with policies that overregulate speech on campus are labeled “yellow light” institutions. In this year’s study, the organization found that for the sixth consecutive year, the percentage of “red light” schools has experienced a 17-point decline.

Still, despite the progress, confusing signals from the federal government have created an unacceptable tension between universities’ twin obligations to protect free speech and to prevent discriminatory harassment, according to the report.

Other key findings include:

  • 35.6% of schools surveyed have “yellow light” policies that overregulate speech on campus.
  • This represents a nearly 17-point decline in red light schools from six years ago, when policies at 75% of schools seriously restricted student speech.
  • The percentage of red light public schools, which are legally bound by the First Amendment, continued to drop, from 61.6% last year to 57.6% this year.
  • The percentage of red light private schools (which promise free speech but do not deliver it) also fell, from 63.4% last year to 61.5% this year.
  • Eastern Kentucky University eliminated all of its speech codes this year, earning FIRE’s highest, “green light,” rating.

“We are heartened to see another drop in the percentage of campuses maintaining restrictive speech codes,” FIRE’s Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris said. “There is much more work to be done, however, particularly in light of the confusing messages coming from the federal government about the relationship between harassment and free speech. For starters, the Department of Education needs to make clear to universities, once and for all, that prohibiting harassment does not mean restricting protected speech.”

Read the press release.

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