Disturbing percentage of American colleges restrict speech, study finds

Nearly nine out of ten U.S. colleges and universities restrict the right to free speech, according to a new report by a free speech nonprofit. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) analyzed the written policies at 466 of America’s top institutions of higher education and discovered that 89.7 percent of the colleges maintained policies that restrict student and faculty expression. Each of the colleges is rated as “red light,” “yellow light,” or “green light” based on the degree to which their policies inhibit the First Amendment.

“Most colleges impose burdensome conditions on expression by maintaining policies that restrict students’ free speech rights,” FIRE Senior Program Officer Laura Beltz said. “Colleges should be a place for open debate and intellectual inquiry, but today, almost all colleges silence expression through policies that are often illiberal and, at public institutions, unconstitutional.”

Nearly 30 percent of the studied institutions received the “red light” status, given to colleges that implement at least one policy highly restricting free speech. 

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Some universities, such as the University of Michigan, do not agree with the designation.

“FIRE continues to misinterpret the Expect Respect campaign, which is not a speech code,” a UMich spokesman told Campus Reform, referencing one of the university’s inclusivity policies categorized by FIRE as a bias and hate speech policy. “We’ve explained this to FIRE many times and the organization has repeatedly refused to change the Red Light status.”

Only 9 percent of institutions examined by the nonprofit received the “green light” status, which means that there are no policies that restrict free speech. Finally, FIRE reports that the number of institutions with the “yellow light” designation have nearly tripled in the past decade, from 21 percent in 2009 to 61 percent in 2018. In 2017, the same annual report from FIRE found that the same percentage - 90 percent - of American colleges and universities restricted speech.  

“Many colleges and universities have taken steps to reform their policies over the years, but this year’s report shows that much work remains to be done,” Nicole Neily, president of the free speech organization Speech First, said in a statement to Campus Reform. “By maintaining vague, overbroad policies, students are put in the impossible position of not knowing exactly what might get them in trouble — and so, out of an abundance of caution, they refrain from expressing opinions on topics like politics or religion altogether.”

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This “kind of self-censorship is entirely unacceptable and inconsistent with a proper college experience,” Neily said. “This chilling — where universities discourage and deter certain kinds of speech — is entirely intentional, and in my opinion poses the greatest threat to free speech on campuses today.”

Follow the author of this article on Facebook: Cory Compton