Majority of U.S. Colleges Enforce Hostile, Anti-Free-Speech Policies

‘There are instances where the written policy at issue may be constitutional … but its application may not be…’

FIRE Names the Worst Colleges for Free Speech in 2019

Syracuse University’s Newhouse Communications Center / IMAGE: Campus Life Presents via Youtube

(Claire Russel, Liberty Headlines) More than half a million college students must find “free speech zones” on their campuses in order to speak freely, according to a new study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Public universities are becoming more and more hostile to free speech, FIRE found. More than half of institutions earned a “yellow light” rating, which means that the universities “maintain policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.”

Only 52 schools in the U.S. earned a “green light” rating, which means the schools’ written policies “do not seriously threaten campus expression.”

These speech codes tend to violate the First Amendment, FIRE said. As a result, federal courts have overturned anti-free speech policies at numerous colleges and universities over the past three decades.


“Though these improvements in policy are heartening, free speech on campus remains under threat,” FIRE said in a statement. “Demands for censorship of student and faculty speech—whether originating on or off campus—are common, and universities continue to investigate and punish students and faculty over protected expression.”

In spite of the legal rulings against them, FIRE concluded that “a large number of institutions—including some of those that have been successfully sued on First Amendment grounds — still maintain unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes.”

Schools attempt to circumvent First Amendment protections by labeling “offensive” speech one of the many free-speech exceptions outlined by the Supreme Court. Other such exceptions to protected speech include the incitement to violence, “fighting words,” harassment, true threats and intimidation, obscenity and defamation.

“The exceptions are often misapplied and abused by universities to punish constitutionally protected speech,” FIRE said. “There are instances where the written policy at issue may be constitutional—for example, a prohibition on ‘incitement’—but its application may not be.”