FIRE Report: Campus Speech Codes Trend Down While New Threats to Free Speech Emerge

December 20, 2010

PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 20Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) releases its 2011 report on campus speech codes, revealing that 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ free speech rights. While this number has dropped for the third year in a rowlast year, the figure was 71 percentalarming trends on the horizon suggest that a surge in restrictions may be imminent if supporters of free speech do not remain vigilant.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses reports on policies at America’s largest and most prestigious colleges and universities. Some of this year’s most outrageous speech codes include:

  • Colorado College prohibits any act that causes any individual or group "ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other such result."
  • Cal Tech prohibits using electronic information resources to "offend" anyone.
  • The University of Florida prohibits "[h]umor and jokes about sex that denigrate a gender."

This year, the percentage of public campuses that clearly and substantially restrict student speech dropped from 71 percent to 67 percent, and the percentage of private campuses that do so declined from 70 to 65 percent.

However, recent legislation introduced in Congress and similar state bills threaten to undermine this progress.

"The continued decline in the number of speech codes on campus is encouraging," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "But if we do not continue to guard vigilantly against restrictions on students’ free speech rights, these gains could be eroded very quickly."

Federal and state bills aimed at combating "bullying" on university campuses threaten to redefine student-on-student harassment in a way that seriously jeopardizes student speech rights. While well-intentioned, these bills ignore the crucial difference between children in elementary and high schools and adult college students, as well as the fact that much of what is being termed "bullying" on the college campus is actually already prohibited by existing laws.

FIRE’s fifth annual report is the largest and most comprehensive effort to date both to quantify the proportion of colleges and universities that restrict free speech and to assess the severity of those restrictions. The report surveys publicly available policies at institutions ranked in the 100 "Best National Universities" and at the 50 "Best Liberal Arts Colleges," as rated in the 2009 "America’s Best Colleges" issue of U.S. News & World Report. FIRE also researched codes at more than 230 additional major public institutions. The research was conducted between September 2009 and September 2010.

All of the policies cited in the report are accessible online in FIRE’s searchable speech code database, Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource. Individuals interested in drawing attention to their institutions’ policies can easily do so by adding FIRE’s Speech Code Widget to their blog or website. Easy instructions for adding the widget are located here.

Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses also discusses legal developments affecting free speech on campus. Yet another speech code was ruled unconstitutional in federal court this year in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, continuing the long line of legal precedent holding that speech codes at public universities violate students’ First Amendment rights.

"FIRE works around the clock to fight speech codes on campus, so we are obviously very pleased with the continued positive trend," said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research. "But the fact remains that students at more than two-thirds of America’s top colleges and universities are being denied their fundamental rights. FIRE will continue to fight until that number is zero."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws.

CONTACT:
Samantha Harris, Director of Speech Code Research, FIRE: 215-717-3473; samantha@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws
Azhar Majeed, Associate Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; azhar@www.thefire-dev.wp.eresources.ws