A recent study found that 88 percent of universities restrict free speech, but that restrictive policies at universities have steadily decreased.
While many universities have shifted to remote instruction, that has not stopped restrictions on free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found in its annual study “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2021” that restrictions on free speech have decreased this year but that the majority of schools still restrict free speech. Of the 478 schools FIRE studied, only 56 were found to not put limits on speech.
Free speech on college campuses has been a hot topic in recent years as many universities have restricted speech and prevented conservatives from speaking at events. FIRE’s recent study found that, surprisingly, university speech policies have grown less restrictive in the last decade.
FIRE’s stoplight color categorization system gives universities a red, yellow, or green rating. The organization bases its ratings on the written policy of the school, not actual enforcement.
FIRE states that “A red light institution maintains at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.” A ban on “offensive speech” is given as an example of a red light policy. The study found that 21.3 percent of universities had at least one stated policy that fit this category. The number of red light institutions has decreased every year for 13 years and is over 50 percent lower than in 2009.
According to the report, “A yellow light institution maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.”
A ban on “verbal abuse” is listed as an example of a yellow light policy because it “has broad applicability and poses a substantial threat to free speech, but it is not a clear violation because ‘abuse’ might refer to unprotected speech and conduct, such as threats of violence or unlawful harassment.”
The report offers a disclaimer, however, noting,
“Yellow light policies are typically unconstitutional when maintained by public universities, and a rating of yellow light rather than red light in no way means that FIRE condones a university’s restrictions on speech.”
The decrease in red light institutions is reflected here as the number of yellow light institutions has grown to encompass 65.3 percent of schools.
A green light rating means that a university’s written policies do not restrict free speech. The percentage of green light universities has risen to an all-time high of 11.7 percent. The study found that 27 schools improved their rating this year. While it is encouraging that numbers have improved, FIRE says it is unacceptable that 88 percent of schools unconstitutionally restrict free speech. The organization writes,
“Though these improvements in policy are heartening, free speech on campus remains under threat. Demands for censorship of student and faculty speech — whether originating on or off campus — are common, and universities continue to investigate and punish students and faculty over protected expression.”
Laura Beltz, FIRE senior program officer and author of the report, said,
“We’ve offered to help every college in this report craft speech-protective policies, but most decided to carry on with their censorship. We encourage prospective students who want to engage in vigorous debate and discussion to keep in mind the 56 institutions that earn FIRE’s top rating. But if they decide to enroll elsewhere, we’re here to help.”
The organization referenced an incident with a Stockton University student who faced “suspension, a fine, and a mandatory ‘social justice workshop’” for displaying a picture of President Trump in the background of his class’s virtual meeting and his political Facebook post. FIRE stepped in to help the student, and the university backed down. FIRE’s report says, “It is imperative that those who care about free speech on campus stay vigilant. The decrease in restrictive speech codes and the proliferation of free speech policy statements are the result of the tireless work of free speech advocates at FIRE and elsewhere.”
It is because of efforts by those like FIRE that restrictions in written policy have decreased. Calling attention to violations of the First Amendment is what prevents censorship from going unchecked. Regardless of written policies, universities across the country are violating the First Amendment in the name of tolerance and political correctness. It is disturbing that such a high percentage of institutions of higher learning restrict the foundational right to express one’s opinion, a trend that must be reversed if our system of government is going to survive.
Check out the Falkirk panel discussion on free speech on college campuses with Dr. Sebastian Gorka, Charlie Kirk, and Erin Elmore: