New Study: More than Three-Fifths of Colleges Maintain Speech Codes That Violate First Amendment Principles

Today, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), released its sixth-annual report on the state of speech codes on college campuses. 

Speech codes are university policies that prohibit expression protected by the First Amendment. At public colleges, speech codes are unconstitutional. At private colleges, administrators have more leeway in policing student and faculty expressive activity. However, if a private college promises free speech with glowing language—as Yale does—we believe they have a duty to deliver.

Our annual report examines the campus speech codes at more than 400 of America’s top colleges. In this year’s findings, we discovered that a distressing 62% of the institutions surveyed have policies on their books that restrict a substantial amount of speech. We call such policies “red light” speech codes. Meanwhile, only 4% of colleges—or 15 schools—earned FIRE’s “green light” rating, meaning they have no policies that violate First Amendment standards.

While the above percentages may come as a shock to some of you, it’s actually an improvement over previous years. Back in 2007, for example, 75% of school surveyed had “red light” codes.

The mere existence of speech codes creates a chilling effect on campuses and miseducates students about their fundamental rights and liberties. And, of course, as I demonstrate in my book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American debate, administrators are also not afraid to use them to prosecute students for speech they dislike.

You can find out how your alma mater is doing with regards to free speech by checking out FIRE’s Spotlight Database.

FIRE is doing a lot to fight back against unconstitutional speech codes, but one of our most important programs is our High School Freedom in Academia Essay Contest. The Essay Contest seeks to educate students on the prevalence of speech codes at colleges so that they are armed with the knowledge to fight back. If you know of any juniors or seniors in high school, encourage them to apply before the deadline on January 2. $20,000 in scholarship money is available to winners!

  1. Barkha Herman

    I will certainly get my High school senior to compete :-).

    Are there FIRE chapters on Campus?  

    Aside from signing petitions, how else can people help?

    How can students get involved?

  2. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Hey Barkha,

    Yes, please spread the word about the high school scholarship! 

    FIRE does not have chapters but we do have student network and a summer student conference: http://www.thecfn.org/ 

    A great way to help is to contact your alma mater about cases and codes we talk about on our interactive database: http://thefire.org/spotlight/ 

    We want to expand everything we do as far as outreach to college students, preparing high school students, and working with alumni, but we, frankly, just need to grow to make that possible. Please consider supporting FIRE in 2012: https://secure.commonground.convio.com/FIRE/generaldonationform/

    Sending the book to skeptical friends helps as well and all royalties go to FIRE! http://fir.ee/M7g3Hi

    We are a little non-profit and we are taking on a huge industry so we very much appreciate the help on all fronts! 

  3. Rob Long
    C

    Greg, why aren’t there more folks on the left making this argument?  Standing up for free speech? I remember years ago, Nat Hentoff — then a far-left columnist for the Village Voice – arguing long and loud about this problem.

    Why don’t they join in the fight?  Or are they, and I just haven’t noticed?

  4. Greg Lukianoff
    C
    Nat is still out there and has been a big supporter of the book: http://thefire.org/index.php/person/3458.html Nadine Strossen, Wendy Kaminer, Harvey Silverglate, and a few others are also strong supporters and you can see some of their remarks here: http://www.unlearningliberty.com/ But I would like to see more people who are left-of-center writing about the book and free-speech-on-campus issues in general. I complain in the book that people attempt to dismiss and ignore the problem of censorship on campus by dubbing it a kind of “conservative niche” issue because a socially conservative student or professor is much more likely to get you in trouble on campus, but as I take pains to explain in the book, it is an issue that should concern us all.   I have been sending the book to skeptics, and those who have read it, do find the cases appalling and my arguments shockingly reasonable (mostly).

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