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!