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REPORT: More Than Six Million American College Students Denied Free Speech Rights
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Fabrice LEROUGE via Getty Images

At least 6.4 million students enrolled in America’s colleges and universities have their First Amendment rights restricted.

A new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) “surveyed publicly available policies at 366 four-year public institutions and 105 of the nation’s most prestigious private institutions.” The report, based on the policies of these 471 institutions, found that the vast majority of institutes either heavily restricted or marginally restricted students’ free speech rights.
FIRE uses a three-tier system to indicate how much a college or university respects the First Amendment. A “red light” means the institution has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts students’ free speech rights in a way that is a clear threat to personal freedom without any need for interpretation. A “yellow light” means students have some free speech rights but may have vaguely worded policies that could restrict those rights, such as a policy banning “verbal abuse,” because of how subjective “abuse” could be. A “green light” is given to institutions that do not “seriously imperil speech.” It doesn’t mean the school is a beacon of free expression, but just that FIRE has not found any policies that present serious threats to free speech.

As is common in FIRE’s annual reports on free speech, only a small percentage of colleges an universities are given a “green light.” 2019’s report was the first time the organization gave a “green light” to more than 50 schools. Below are FIRE’s major findings:

  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.)

“Many college administrators are scrubbing the most egregious policies from the books, but they’re increasingly crafting subtler policies that still limit student expression,” FIRE Senior Program Officer Laura Beltz, the lead author of the study, said in a statement about the report. “Yellow light policies aren’t good enough — they still restrict protected speech. Colleges must go green or go back to the drawing board.”

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