What Universities Can Do for Free Speech in 2015

The new year offers an opportunity for campuses  across the country to improve their free-speech record. In 2014, the University of Iowa censored a professor’s art display because it caused controversy and offense by commenting on racism, then justified its decision with a self-congratulatory message to the campus community that will surely chill even more speech. Marquette University suspended a professor from his teaching duties, apparently for criticizing a class instructor in a blog post. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated that they had internalized the lessons of censorship taught by their own administration, calling for the disinvitation of Bill Maher as the university’s December commencement speaker.

Moreover, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that most colleges and universities are faring poorly in terms of their written policies. Our recently released 2015 speech code report found that approximately 55 percent of the 437 institutions surveyed nationally maintain at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts speech protected by the First Amendment (FIRE calls these “red light” policies).

Three of those schools revised all of their speech-restrictive policies with FIRE’s assistance, earning our highest, “green light” rating for campus speech codes:the University of Florida, Georgetown College in Kentucky and Plymouth State University in New Hampshire

Furthermore, schools such as Western Kentucky University, Arkansas State University, and the University of New Mexico revised illiberal policies that FIRE had named as “Speech Code of the Month” during 2014.

We have already received encouraging responses to a national certified mailing we sent to over 300 public colleges and universities on Constitution Day, September 17, 2014. As a result, we are  working with dozens of colleges and universities toward eliminating their most speech-restrictive policies. Additionally, resources such as our Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies guide and Spotlight database for campus speech codes are always available to any university administrators, students, and faculty members who are interested in pursuing policy reform.

And under FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, FIRE has, over the past year, coordinated student and faculty First Amendment lawsuits in seven different cases. Three of those lawsuits—at Modesto Junior College and Citrus College in California, and at the University of Hawaii at Hilo—have already been settled in favor of student free speech rights, for a total of $210,000 in fees and damages. The other four lawsuits—at Chicago State University, Iowa State University, Ohio University, and Western Michigan University—are ongoing at this time. FIRE plans to coordinate additional lawsuits until colleges and universities finally get the message about respecting free speech rights.

Rather than face embarrassment and a federal lawsuit for violating a student’s or faculty member’s First Amendment rights, university administrators would be better served working to fix their speech codes. FIRE is ready to help.

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