Most top colleges still regulate campus speech, report says

More than 90 percent of top U.S. colleges have policies regulating campus free speech, with one-third applying severely restrictive policies, according to a recent study.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported Tuesday that more than half of the 461 schools included in its annual year-end study limit free speech in some way. 

"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," the study said. "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."

However, the study also found that for the 10th year in a row, the percentage of "red light" schools -- institutions FIRE says have severely restrictive policies -- has declined. And the group reported that an unprecedented number of schools have removed all of their speech codes, earning them a "green light" rating.

The majority of institutions surveyed -- 58.6 percent -- earned a "yellow light" rating, which means their policies "still chill or outright prohibit protected speech."

FIRE graf 2

 (FIRE)

"We are happy to see that fewer schools are maintaining the most restrictive types of speech codes, but the fact that 90 percent of schools maintain a speech code of some kind is still a significant problem for free speech."

- Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research at FIRE

In its analysis, FIRE noted a difference in free speech at public universities versus private ones. The First Amendment generally does not apply to students at private colleges because its regulates government — not private — conduct, according to FIRE.

The group claims that while "most private universities explicitly promise freedom of speech and academic freedom," their policies often contradict such statements. 

FIRE cites a 2017 statement from Georgetown University in which the school declares its commitment to free speech.

"As an institution of higher education, one specifically committed to the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, Georgetown University is committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas," the university said in a June 2017 statement. "It is Georgetown University’s policy to provide all members of the university community, including faculty, students and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn."

However, Georgetown is labeled "red light" school by FIRE. The school has a ban on any language that disrespects individuals there: a "civility" requirement in the student code of conduct that FIRE deems restrictive to free speech. But all other policies at Georgetown are considered "yellow light" by FIRE. 

Other schools deemed "red light" include American University, Boston College, the University of Notre Dame, Harvard, Wesleyan, the University of Texas at Austin, Rice University and Pennsylvania State University – University Park.

Schools listed as "yellow light" include Amherst College, Brown, Columbia and several state schools, like Colorado State University. "Green light" schools include University of Chicago, the University of Florida and Duke.

"We are happy to see that fewer schools are maintaining the most restrictive types of speech codes, but the fact that 90 percent of schools maintain a speech code of some kind is still a significant problem for free speech," Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research at FIRE, said Wednesday.

"In the coming year, we hope to work with more schools to eliminate their speech codes altogether," Harris said.