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Speech codes are in decline but…

Matthew Vadum author image /

Campus speech codes appear to be in decline, according to Adam Goldstein, a Justice Robert H. Jackson Legal Fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“The good news is that in our most recent report we’ve seen the lowest number of unconstitutional speech codes that we’ve ever seen,” says Goldstein.

FIRE conducted a survey of 449 schools for this report and found that 39.6 percent maintain severely restrictive, “red light” speech codes that according to FIRE’s established criteria substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech. This is the ninth year in a row that the percentage of schools maintaining such policies has declined, and this year’s drop was almost 10 percentage points. (Last year, 49.3 percent of schools garnered a red light rating.)

In addition, an unprecedented number of schools have abolished their speech codes, earning them FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating: As of September 2016, 27 schools received a green light rating, up from 22 schools the prior year. “In another heartening trend, a growing number of schools are adopting statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015. As of this writing, 20 schools or faculty bodies in FIRE’s Spotlight database had endorsed a version of the ‘Chicago Statement.'”

But that’s not all, according to Goldstein. “The bad news is the challenges to speech are starting to morph and they’re no longer in the limited speech codes.”

Campus administrations are waging simultaneous wars on pronouns, microaggressions, and cultural appropriation. There is also the insistence on providing trigger-warnings, safe spaces, and healing spaces.

“While there have been positive developments, the climate for free speech on campus is in many ways more precarious than ever,” according to FIRE.

“[B]ias reporting systems—Orwellian programs under which students are asked to report on one another for offensive speech—are proliferating at campuses nationwide. Student demands for censorship are increasingly common. The federal government continues to press a definition of sexual harassment that encompasses not only actual harassment but also constitutionally protected speech. And an unacceptable number of universities continue to punish students and faculty members for constitutionally protected speech and expression.”