While the public seems to fondly believe that speech codes are a thing of the past — a bygone product of the “political correctness” movement of the 1980s and 1990s — they are alive and well on the modern college campus. As I explain in Unlearning Liberty, these days, you’re unlikely to open up a student handbook and find a section labeled “Speech Code.” Instead, these codes are woven into other policies regarding student conduct, particularly those that prohibit “harassment” and “incivility.” What hasn’t changed about these speech codes, however, is how ludicrous they often are.
In the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education‘s (FIRE’s) most recent annual report on campus speech codes, we found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the 392 colleges and universities we surveyed across the country maintained speech codes that clearly fail to meet First Amendment standards (which FIRE labels as “red light” policies). See Spotlight on Speech Codes 2012: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses for our analysis. Moreover, even though public schools are legally required to uphold students’ First Amendment rights, these institutions were no more likely than private schools to have policies that met constitutional standards; 65 percent of both public and private universities surveyed received a “red light” rating.
This is actually an improvement from past years. In fact, the percentage of overall “red light” schools has now dropped for four straight years, from 75 percent in 2009, to 71 percent in 2010, to 67 percent in 2011, to 65 percent today. Additionally, the number of institutions that do not maintain any published policy restrictions on student free speech (which we call “green light” schools) has nearly doubled over that time, from 8 to 15. Nonetheless, the fact that such a high proportion of surveyed colleges […]