Despite the explicit protections of the First Amendment, a majority of US institutions of higher learning enforce rules that severely restrict free speech on campus, according to a new study.
According to a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 59 percent of US colleges and universities received a ‘red light’, meaning that the schools endorse policies that the watchdog group says impede on First Amendment rights.
A red-light institution, according to FIRE, is one that has “at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or barring public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university log-in and password for access.”
Out of 427 schools surveyed in the report, about one out of every six enforced “free speech zone” policies – legislation that limits student protests and other “expressive activities” to small and isolated parts of campus.
The report provided some examples of free speech policies that they say infringe on First Amendment rights. The University of Southern Mississippi, for example, requires students to hold their demonstrations in one designated ‘Speakers’ Corner’ unless they register the demonstration at least one month in advance of the event.
Longwood University in Virginia limits speeches, demonstrations and literature distribution to one location, and requires the area to be reserved five days in advance.
In addition to the 59 percent listed as restricting free speech, FIRE gave a ‘yellow light’ rating to 35.6 percent of colleges and universities because they have "policies that overregulate speech on campus."
Another method that many colleges and universities employ for impeding upon free speech is by charging demonstrating groups for the cost of providing security at such events.
The University of Oklahoma, for example, states “When the director of Student Life determines that additional security beyond that normally provided is necessary, the director of Student Life shall so inform the [Registered Student Organization]. The RSO shall be responsible for the cost of additional security.”
The FIRE report indicated that some schools impinged on free speech rights in an attempt to “stop harassment” against particular groups and organizations.
Many institutions “expand the term to prohibit broad categories of speech that do not even approach actual harassment…These vague and overly broad harassment policies deprive students and faculty of their free speech rights.”
An example is provided by way of Athens State University in Alabama, which has a long list of groups that any protesting student group must be careful not to offend or criticize.
Their policy on harassment says that “any conduct consisting of words or actions that are unwelcome or offensive to a person in relation to race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, disability, religion, genetic information, or veteran status.”
FIRE’s Director of Policy Research Samantha Harris said in a statement, "the Department of Education needs to make clear to universities, once and for all, that prohibiting harassment does not mean restricting protected speech."