Over 90% of America's Top Colleges Regulate Campus Free Speech

One-third employ severely restrictive policies

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December 20, 2017

Over 90 percent of the America's top colleges maintain policies regulating campus free speech, with one third employing severely restrictive policies, according to a study released Tuesday.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported in its annual end-of-year analysis on campus speech and harassment policies—what FIRE terms "speech codes"—found that over half of the 461 schools included in FIRE's study continue to use methods that have some "chilling effect" on expression.

One in nine campuses continue to preserve "free speech zones," or limited strips of campus to which administrators at public institutions restrict demonstrations, pamphleting, and other public expressions of views, according to the report. These zones can make up less than 1 percent of a campus, according to FIRE.

Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research at FIRE, said such policy is "blatantly unconstitutional."

The U.S. Justice Department has publicly supported students who have filed suits against their colleges zoning guidelines, and the state legislatures of Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, Virginia, Kentucky, and Utah have all approved bills this year banning zones at public universities.

Yet, there has been no tidal wave in eradicating the zones policies.

"Schools, understandably, need to maintain order, and prior restrain policies are attractive and effective," said Harris. "It's the path of least resistance."

Students should be on alert for language in student handbooks banning "offensive speech," a rule banning all spontaneous protest activity, or requirement that students receive prior approval for all club activity.

"The more broad, the more restrictive," Harris offered as a rule of thumb.

Harris urged schools to prioritize protecting speech with a content-neutral statement, like the one issued at the University of Chicago in 2012 and since adopted by 27 other schools or faculty bodies.

But, crucially, universities must then actually follow through. Even when administrators take free speech promises, they can fail to stand by that principle when the heat is on, said Harris.

She pointed to the infamous 2015 incident at Yale, where a pair of married academics who urged students not to be easily offended by Halloween costumes were ultimately forced out of the institution not by official fiat, but due to student pressure.

"You want to be making your position on free speech known before a crisis," said Harris. "Adopt the 'Chicago Statement' as a first principle, but then put it in all of the official materials at orientation, and integrate it into other policies."

Harris said an increasing number of schools received FIRE's "green light," the group's recognition of a school without its anti-free speech policies.

Since the report was completed, another two schools have been awarded the "green" rating, bringing the total up to 37.

"There's a lot of work left to be done," said Harris. "But we don't want to make perfect the enemy of good."