FIRE Press Release: Report Finds Rampant Censorship At American Colleges And Universities

January 2007

PHILADELPHIA, December 6, 2006 — A report released today by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reveals that burdensome restrictions on speech are commonplace at America’s colleges and universities. The report, entitled Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, surveyed more than 330 schools and found that an overwhelming majority of them explicitly prohibit speech that, outsidethe borders of campus, is protected bytheFirst Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“There is a common misconception that ‘speech codes’ are a thing of the past—a relic of the heyday of political correctness of the 1980s and 90s—but the public needs to know that speech codes are perhaps more pervasive and restrictive than ever,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said.

FIRE’s report is the most comprehensive effort to date to quantify both the number of colleges and universities that restrict free speech and the severity of those restrictions. The report surveyed publicly available policies at the 100 “Best National Universities” and at the 50 “Best Liberal Arts Colleges,” as rated in the August 29, 2005 “America’s Best Colleges” issue of U.S. News & World Report, as well as at an additional 184 major public universities. The research was conducted between September 2005 and September 2006. All of the policies cited in the report are available on FIRE’s searchable speech codes database, Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource.

The report’s findings include:

  • Public colleges and universities are disregarding their constitutional obligations. More than 73% of public universities surveyed maintain unconstitutional speech codes, despite numerous federal court decisions striking down similar or identical policies.
  • Most private colleges and universities promise free speech, but usually do not deliver. Unlike public universities, private universities are not legally bound by the First Amendment. However, most of them explicitly promise free speech rights to their students and faculty. For example, Boston University promises “the right to teach and to learn in an atmosphere of unfettered free inquiry and exposition.” Unfortunately, it also prohibits speech that would be constitutionally protected in society at large, such as “annoying” electronic communications and expressions of opinion that do not “show respect for the aesthetic, social, moral, and religious feelings of others.”

Overall, the report reveals that more than 68% of the colleges and universities surveyed maintain policies that “both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” Overbroad and vague speech codes from the 2005-2006 academic year include:

  • Macalester College bans “speech that makes use of inappropriate words or non-verbals.”
  • Furman University bans any “offensive communication not in keeping with community standards.”
  • At the University of Mississippi, “offensive language is not to be used” over the telephone.
  • The University of North Carolina–Greensboro prohibits “disrespect for persons.”

At the report’s conclusion, FIRE suggests several potential solutions to the problem of speech codes. As the report notes, many of the speech codes cited at public universities would likely not survive a legal challenge. FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project has already led to the demise of similar codes at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, Citrus College, and the State University of New York at Brockport. The report also suggests that public exposure is a highly effective weapon against speech codes, since “neither our nation’s courts nor its people look favorably upon speech codes or other restrictions on basic freedoms.”

“Speech codes have lost in the courts whenever they have been challenged, and they are a failure with the public who rightfully believe that colleges and universities rely on free speech in order to function. Speech codes should be relegated to the dustbin of history, and FIRE will keep fighting until they are gone,” Lukianoff said.