Vast Majority Of Colleges Have At Least One Policy That Violates Free Speech, Watchdog Finds

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Alexa Schwerha Contributor
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An overwhelming majority of colleges in the United States have at least one speech code that violates students’ free speech rights, according to watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

FIRE’s 2023 “Spotlight on Speech Codes,” obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation, and released Tuesday morning, examined different speech codes and their impact on students’ free speech rights. Of the 486 schools sampled by FIRE, 94 universities enforce a speech policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts speech, 324 enforce “vague regulations” on speech and a mere 60 schools do not enforce serious restrictions on student speech.

Eight schools received a “warning label” which indicates that a private school “holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech,” according to the report. (RELATED: These Are The Top 5 Best And Worst Colleges For Free Speech According To Free Speech Experts)

“Unfortunately, our research reveals about 88% of schools have at least one policy on the books that infringes on speech that is protected under First Amendment standards,” FIRE Director of Policy Reform Laura Beltz told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The report found that the percentage of schools that have severe speech limitations increased from 18.5% to 19.3% in one year.

“These policies are unconstitutional when maintained by public schools, and go against the promises of free speech that most private schools make to their students,” Beltz explained.

The most common speech code violations were found in schools “Harassment and bullying policies” as well as “Bias reporting policies,” “Protest and demonstration policies,” “Posting and distribution of materials policies” and “Technology use policies.”

For instance, Bates College claimed that students could submit examples of “hate speech,” “sexist jokes” and “disparaging remarks on social media sites” as bias incidents. The school then said it “reserves the right to address bias incidents that do not rise to the level of a policy violation.”

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth reportedly requires students to give campus police a 48-hour notice before conducting demonstrations or protests, which FIRE claims limit students’ abilities to “respon[d] to new and unfolding events.”

Additionally, Kean University implements a policy which requires students to reserve an area to distribute materials five days in advance.

The report also acknowledges that the number of schools awarded a “green light” rating for not infringing on student speech rights hit an all time high as the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the University of South Florida were added to the light.

“Speech codes are a problem even when they’re not actually applied to violate students’ rights, since their restrictive language can discourage students from sharing their views on controversial topics,” Beltz concluded. “We release this annual report to shine a light on these policies, and we’re available to work one-on-one with schools to improve them.”

FIRE offers two guides on how to implement policies in these areas that do not tread on students’ rights, including a Model Code of Student Conduct and the Model Speech Policies for College Campuses.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Bates College, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Kean University did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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