FIRE Annual Report Documents Progress and Challenges for Campus Free Speech

On December 11th the Wall Street Journal ran this article highlighting the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) tenth annual report. This report surveys FIRE’s full database of 345 four-year public universities and 104 private four-year universities. FIRE ranks the speech codes of these universities using a stop light system:

Red Light institutions have at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access. A “clear” restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on protected expression.

Yellow Light institutions maintain policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech. For example, a policy banning “verbal abuse” has broad applicability and poses a substantial threat to free speech, but it is not a clear violation because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as threats of violence or genuine harassment.

Green Light institutions do not have policies which seriously threaten campus expression. They also give out a Warning-Does not Promise Free Speech rating for some private universities. Private universities are just that—private associations—and as such, they possess their own right to free association, which allows them to prioritize other values above the right to free speech if they wish to do so. Therefore, when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE warns prospective students and faculty members of this fact.

Some highlights from FIRE’s report:

  • Of the surveyed Public universities, 39.6% received Red Light ratings, down nearly 10% from last year and down 40% in the last nine years.
  • There was 3% decrease in the number of surveyed Private Schools which drastically restricted free speech
  • Over the last nine years the number of green light institutions has now tripled, with 27 institutions receiving that rating this year
  • In total, of the 449 schools rated for this report, 178 received Red Light ratings, 237 received Yellow Light ratings, 27 received Green Light Ratings, and 7 institutions were not rated for the survey.

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