Third of Colleges Have Speech Codes That Restrict Free Speech

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its annual report on speech codes on college campuses:

Despite the critical importance of free speech on campus, too many universities — in policy and in practice — chill, censor, and punish students’ and faculty members’ expressive activity. One way that universities do this is through the use of speech codes: policies prohibiting speech that, outside the bounds of campus, would be protected by the First Amendment.

The good news?  Each year, more colleges are adopting speech-friendly policies.  The bad news?  Still one-third of colleges restrict free speech in their written policies:

Just under one-third (32.3 percent) of surveyed institutions received FIRE’s lowest, red light rating for maintaining speech codes that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. This year’s figure is seven percentage points lower than last year and almost 42 percentage points lower than in FIRE’s 2009 report.

Most institutions — 58.6 percent — receive a yellow light rating. Yellow light policies restrict narrower categories of speech than red light policies do, or are vaguely worded in a way that could too easily be used to suppress protected speech, and are unconstitutional at public universities.

Most of the colleges and universities surveyed are public schools, which are bound by the First Amendment and are therefore violating their students' constitutional rights by restricting free speech. 

The report goes into detail on the specific types of policies and provisions that restrict speech on campus, noting that 10% of colleges maintain a "free speech zone," which restricts speech to a small area on campus.  FIRE also acknowledges the unfortunate practical effect of this institutional disrespect for free speech among students and faculty:

Despite the continued decline in speech codes, however, free speech on campus remains under serious threat. Student, faculty, and administrative demands for censorship of controversial or offensive speech are common, and an unacceptable number of universities continue to punish students and faculty for constitutionally protected speech and expression.

This disturbing trend also plays out in the culture at large, as people demand that the government protect them from offensive speech, not recognizing that the First Amendment equally protects all citizens against government censorship of their speech and that those demanding censorship today could be threatened with censorship tomorrow.  We are grateful to FIRE and the other organizations fighting to protect free speech on college campuses.