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Report: College free speech codes mostly ‘yellow lights’

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(The Center Square) – Although public colleges and universities operate under First Amendment guidelines and many private schools pledge to uphold the principles of free speech, a new report says most still enforce policies that restrict it in some way.

After reviewing the policies of 489 of America’s top colleges and universities, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, has released its Spotlight on Speech Codes 2024. The schools earned red, yellow, or green light ratings based on the extent to which their written regulations threaten free speech.

Of the 376 four-year public institutions and 113 private institutions evaluated, FIRE found 85% have at least one policy that could be used to improperly restrict students’ freedom of expression.

The majority – 65.4% – fell into the yellow range, having policies that “could too easily be applied to suppress protected speech,” or restrict relatively narrow categories of speech. Only 12.8% earned a green light rating.

Red light ratings were given to 20% of schools for maintaining at least one policy that “clearly and substantially restricts free speech,” or bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a login and password for access.

Of 31 Pennsylvania schools included in the report, only two earned a green light rating – PennWest Edinboro and Shippensburg University. Gettysburg College and West Chester University were downgraded from yellow to red, making a total of ten state schools in that category, and the remaining 19 earned yellow light ratings.

While the number of green-rated schools increased to an all-time high of 63 this year, FIRE notes that red light schools also increased from 19.3% in 2023 to 20% in 2024, reversing a 15-year trend of decreasing percentages.

The report states the ratings are based solely on the school’s written regulations. They do not take into account a university’s “as-applied” violations of student speech rights, censorship instances, calls for punishment of protected speech, or related incidents and controversies. The Center Square previously reported on the organization’s College Free Speech Rankings, which incorporates such factors.

In general, FIRE says, private schools were significantly less likely to earn green light ratings and more likely to earn yellow or red than public schools. The main reason being “schools maintaining overbroad policies on harassment that put protected speech at risk.”

Six private schools and two public military academies received a “Warning” rating because they made no promise of free speech rights – “clearly placing other values above free expression rights.”

In contrast, the report says, 105 university administrations, systems, or faculty bodies have adopted free speech policy statements modeled after the “Chicago Statement,” actively committing their institutions to upholding freedom of expression.

Gettysburg College’s website says its free speech philosophy, adopted in 2018, was modeled after similar documents produced by the University of Chicago and Franklin & Marshall College. However, it is worth noting the school’s rating went from yellow in 2023 to red in 2024.

Additionally, last year, the University of Wyoming adopted a formal statement committing them to maintaining institutional neutrality.

FIRE says it anticipates seeing an increase in institutions embracing the ideals of the Chicago Statement and an uptick in formal adoptions of institutional neutrality in 2024.

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