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Free Speech On Campus – Better, But Not Great.

FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has released it’s annual report concerning free speech on college campuses for the year.

The major findings of the report are:

1) The percentage of schools earning an overall “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database has gone down for the twelfth year in a row, this year to 24.2%. This is over a four percentage point drop from last year, and is exactly 50 percentage points lower than the percentage of red light institutions in FIRE’s 2009 report.

2) The percentage of private universities earning a red light rating, which stood at 47.1% last year, continued to decrease, coming in at 44.8% this year.

3) 63.9% of institutions now earn an overall “yellow light” rating. Though less restrictive than red light policies, yellow light policies restrict expression that is protected under First Amendment standards and invite administrative abuse.

4) This is the first year since FIRE began rating speech codes that the list of “green light” institutions reached a total of 50 schools. (Since this year’s report was written, two more universities have earned green light status, bringing the total to 52.) Policies earn a green light rating when they do not seriously threaten protected expression. Only eight institutions earned a green light rating in FIRE’s 2009 report.

5) 8.3% of institutions surveyed maintain “free speech zone” policies, which limit student demonstrations and other expressive activities to small and/or out-of-the-way areas on campus. A 2013 FIRE survey of these institutions found roughly double that percentage.

6) Sixty-eight university administrations or faculty bodies have now adopted policy statements in support of free speech modeled after the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (the “Chicago Statement”), released in January 2015. (Since this year’s report was written, two more institutions have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement, bringing the total to 70.)

While the trend is good, no one should be happy that one in four universities in the US have regulations that trample on the rights of students attending public universities.

We would argue that not only should colleges allow free speech, but protect the rights as well. The Supreme Court constantly reminds people that a “hecker’s veto” – one where one party shouts down anther – is contrary to the First Amendment. Yet we often see people interrupting and being violent at events where ideas with which they disagree are espoused.

The same type of protection should extend to private universities as well. While not required by law, private colleges should encourage the exchange of different ideas and not seek to stifle them.

If kids learn in school that censorship is acceptable, what will happen when they get into the real world? Will they seek to violently stop speech with which they disagree? Will they tell employers that the owners of the business must comply with their demands on “acceptable” speech and ideas?

The FIRE continues to do great work in protecting the free speech rights of students, and we are grateful they are there to do so.

The fact of the matter is that they shouldn’t be needed at all. Schools and people should respect the free speech rights of others.

Someday we’d like to see organizations like FIRE and others put out of business because there is no more work for them to do.

As evidenced by the 24% of public schools that refuse to recognize the rights of students, that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

The FIRE report in its entirety can be found here in a pdf format.



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