SURVEY: Free speech gradually gaining ground on campus

Nikita Vladimirov
Investigative Reporter

  • The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has released its annual "Spotlight on Speech Codes" report, revealing that nearly one-third of colleges and universities still substantially restrict free speech.
  • The trend over the last decade has been consistently positive, however, with the number of red light schools dropping 42 percentage points since 2009.
  • A new survey of 461 colleges and universities around the country found that roughly one in three schools still maintain policies that drastically limit free speech on campus.

    According to an annual study conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 32.3 percent of colleges and universities surveyed “received FIRE’s lowest, red light rating for maintaining speech codes that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.”

    "Despite the critical importance of free speech on campus, too many universities...chill, censor, and punish students’ and faculty members’ expressive activity."   

    [RELATED: STUDY: Majority of college students hostile to free speech]

    The “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report, however, notes that the percentage of red light institutions has been consistently shrinking throughout the last decade, pointing out that “This year’s figure is seven percentage points lower than last year and almost 42 percentage points lower than in FIRE’s 2009 report.”

    According to the report, 58.6 percent of the schools earned a “yellow light” rating for instituting policies that “restrict narrower categories of speech than red light policies do, or are vaguely worded in a way that could too easily be used to suppress protected speech, and are unconstitutional at public universities.”

    Only 37 institutions earned the highest “green light” rating from FIRE, and are considered to have policies that do not infringe on the free speech rights of students. The total, however, is still an improvement from the mere eight schools that received the same rating in 2009.

    FIRE also noted improvements in the general attitude toward free speech. For example, the study found that “twenty-seven schools or faculty bodies (up seven from last year) have adopted statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015.”

    On the other hand, FIRE also underscored that one in ten schools still have a “free speech zone” where “student demonstrations and other expressive activities are limited to small or out-of-the-way areas on campus.”

    [RELATED: UC reminds freshmen that it doesn't do safe spaces]

    “Fully 30 percent of institutions maintain some form of bias response team, specifically tasked with identifying ‘bias’ and ‘hate speech’ on campus,” the survey revealed. “These teams can rely on students anonymously reporting other students for speech which, though subjectively seen as ‘offensive,’ is often fully protected speech.”

    According to the report, over 50 percent of the private schools surveyed by FIRE maintain such bias response teams.

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    Nikita Vladimirov

    Nikita Vladimirov

    Investigative Reporter
    Nikita Vladimirov is an Investigative Reporter for Campus Reform. Prior to joining Campus Reform, he wrote for The Hill, where he extensively covered the latest political developments in U.S. and around the world. A 2016 national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists' "Mark of Excellence Award," Nikita now resides in Washington D.C. and contributes to the Washington Examiner. His work has appeared on the front pages of The Drudge Report and The Hill, and has been featured by leading media organizations including Fox News, MSN, Real Clear Defense and many others.
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