Free Speech Curtailed At Universities
Special Report - December 16, 2009
More than 70 percent of American universities and colleges in a new survey have regulations that seriously curtail free speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE’s annual report, “Spotlight on Speech Codes, 2010: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” examined the written speech code policies of 375 public and private universities and colleges across the U.S. (102 private schools and 273 public schools). FIRE ranked the schools by “how much, if any, protected speech their written policies restrict.” It defined speech codes as “university regulations prohibiting expression that would be constitutionally protected in society at large.” Examples included university policies against harassment or bias, and “free speech zones,” which are university regulations that require students to hold rallies, speeches or demonstrations in designated areas away from campus, and also often require advance notice of the event.
The study notes that the percentage of public institutions with speech codes has declined in recent years, from 79 percent two years ago to 77 percent last year, and down to 71 percent in the latest report. However, the percentage of private schools with speech codes has increased, according to FIRE, from 67 percent last year to 70 percent in the latest report.
Schools were designated in the report as either “red light,” “yellow light” or “green light” institutions. The report defined “red light” institutions as those with “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login.” It defined “yellow light” institutions as those that “maintain policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech, or policies that, while restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech.” It defined “green light” institutions as those where FIRE found “no policies that seriously imperil speech.” The report also included a “not rated” category for private universites (such as Baylor University and the U.S. Military Academy) that “clearly and consistently” state that they hold “a certain set of values above a commitment to free speech.”
Overall, 71 percent of schools in the FIRE report received a “red light,” 24 percent received a “yellow light,” and three percent received a “green light.” Two percent of the schools in the survey (or 8 total) were not rated. None of the North Carolina universities or colleges in the report received a “green light” ranking. North Carolina institutions that received a “red light” for their free speech codes included: N.C. Central University, N.C. School of the Arts, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, Wake Forest University, and Winston-Salem State University. Institutions that received a “yellow light” included: UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Pembroke.
As we previously reported, FIRE has been involved in challenges to university free speech zones across the country, including at Winston-Salem State University, which instituted a free speech zone in January 2008 but later revised it, and at UNC Greensboro, which previously had two free speech zones but modified its policy in March 2006.
A 2006 report by FIRE and the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which examined First Amendment issues on university campuses nationwide, concluded 13 out of the 16 schools in North Carolina’s university system “have at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” The report also criticized the UNC system for its “particular enmity” towards religious freedom.
“It is an ongoing scandal that so many public and private colleges and universities maintain rules that so blatantly flout our Constitution and our national traditions of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Universities should serve as the ultimate free speech zones for our society. We are encouraged, though, that the percentage of public universities that maintain unconstitutional codes is slowly shrinking.
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