A number of Virginia colleges fared poorly for their policies regarding free speech, according to a recent report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Out of the colleges that were reviewed, only three received "green lights" and 12 received "yellow lights," which means they hold at least one policy that FIRE views as ambiguous to the extent that it "easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application."
One college – Virginia State University – received a "red light" rating, which means it holds at least one policy that "clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."
The ways in which colleges were restricting free speech varied depending on the college, Laura Beltz, the senior program officer for policy reform at FIRE, told Watchdog.org.
"It really runs the gamut, with some schools maintaining policies that force students to get advance permission before protesting on campus, and others maintaining overbroad and vague harassment policies that could be applied to restrict protected speech," she said. "One common type is bias incident policies – policies that direct students to report speech that they perceive as biased to university administrators, whether or not it is protected by the First Amendment. About half the schools in Virginia maintain a bias incident reporting policy."
For example, Virginia State University has two policies that are "red light" policies. The university requires students to get written approval from the Department of Student Activities for a demonstration, which must be filled out 10 days prior to the demonstration. Additionally, the university’s sexual harassment guidelines prohibit certain language that conveys the notion that there are feminine or masculine gender roles one ought to live up to.
Virginia Tech also has several "yellow light" policies, according to FIRE, including a bias-related incident protocol, event approval, advertising on campus and demonstrations on campus.
James Madison University has four "yellow light" policies, including a bias reporting form and regulations on soliciting. Washington and Lee University has several "yellow light" policies, including social media guidelines and a bias reporting policy. Norfolk State University had two "yellow light" policies regarding regulations for posting information and vague rules regarding bullying.
Many of the colleges that received these ratings have stated that one of their goals is to uphold free speech.
"We would never agree or disagree with a rating as it reflects an independent organization’s opinion," Bill Wyatt, a spokesperson for JMU, told Watchdog.org. "As the university named for the father of the Constitution, we respect a diversity of opinion and share in the responsibility to foster an open dialogue on the most difficult issues of the day."
Mark Owczarski, the assistant vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech, had a similar response.
"Free speech is a strongly held principle at Virginia Tech as it is the foundation of academic freedom and is essential for providing an effective learning environment," he told Watchdog.org.
Stan Donaldson, the director of media relations at Norfolk State University, told Watchdog.org that the university supports free speech on campus. He also added that the university has a free speech committee and that the university will be developing a policy that will be addressing these free speech issues.
Norfolk State University, Donaldson said, hopes to work with FIRE to solve these issues.
Washington and Lee University and Virginia State University did not respond to a request for comment.
Although 81 percent of colleges in Virginia were found to restrict free speech to some extent, this is a trend across the United States and not just in Virginia. Only two states had more "green light" schools than Virginia, which were North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
"A lot of these policies just need a few tweaks in order to meet First Amendment standards," Beltz said. "FIRE is always happy to work with university administrators to craft policies that meet the goals of administrators in addressing misconduct, while fully protecting student rights."
FIRE has also published a guideline to assist colleges with addressing free-speech issues.