Report: Colleges Begin To Loosen Campus Speech Codes

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Blake Neff Reporter
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America’s colleges are loosening their restrictions on free expression, but still have a long way to go, according to the latest campus ratings released over the weekend by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

FIRE, a civil liberties advocate for the country’s students and faculty, compiled its Spotlight on Campus Speech Codes by assessing the existing rules regarding speech and expression on 437 different college campuses. Examples of policies that earn the group’s ire are bans on profanity and hate speech, overly expansive harassment rules, the creation of “free speech zones,” and restrictions on academic research or what speakers may be brought to campus.

Of the schools surveyed, 55.2 percent received a red light rating, the lowest one possible. 39.1 percent received a yellow light, and a scant 4.1 percent, just 18 total schools, received the top green light rating. Seven schools were declared “exempt” because their official school policies place certain values, such as religious ones, explicitly above freedom of speech in importance (schools so exempted include Brigham Young University, Baylor University, and Vassar College).

Despite the heavy glare of so many red light ratings, the numbers represent a significant improvement over time according to FIRE’s metrics. In their 2007 report, a whopping 79 percent of schools received a red light rating, and only two percent had green lights. On the whole, public schools were rated slightly more favorably than private ones.

While speech is generally becoming freer, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff said there is one major hiccup thanks to the meddling of the federal government.

“The federal government’s efforts to address sexual harassment on campus are leading a number of universities to adopt flatly unconstitutional speech policies,” said Lukianoff in a statement. “The greatest threat to free speech on campus may now be the federal government.”

Lukianoff was referring to Department of Education letter from 2013 which encouraged universities to define sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” while eliminating the requirement that such conduct be “objectively offensive.” Several schools, including Penn State and the University of Connecticut, have adjusted their sexual harassment rules accordingly, and FIRE says that’s been a loss for free speech.

2014 marked a significant shift in strategy for FIRE. For most of its history, the group has advocated for greater campus liberty but generally stayed aloof from direct intervention against policies it opposes. In 2014, however, the group launched its Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project, which is committed to bringing lawsuits against any colleges it believes are unconstitutionally suppressing speech. FIRE argues that many schools are getting away with policies that are clearly illegal, and through its lawsuits it hopes to make speech codes too costly to sustain. The group’s 2014 report includes a warning that any schools receiving a red light should consider themselves “extremely vulnerable” to a lawsuit in the future.

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