Dispatches from the Creation Wars

FIRE Report on Campus Speech Codes

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has issued its annual report on campus speech codes around the country (see the complete list of over 300 schools and their rating here). They use a three-tiered rating of red, yellow and green lights based upon how draconian or arbitrary a university’s speech codes are. They note that the vast majority of colleges and universities, 2/3 of which are public, punish speech that is, outside the bounds of a campus, clearly protected by the first amendment. Out of 334 schools, 229 of them received a red light rating. Public universities fared worse than private universities, overall. Several Federal district court rulings have declared such policies to be unconstitutional, but because they were not appealed to a higher court, there hasn’t been a wider precedent set.


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    December 11, 2006

    Who are these people?

    As an indication of the power of symbols and association, I see the “fire” logo on the front of the report, and I’m reminded of the number of right-wing newspapers and religious organizations that use “fire” (referencing, no doubt, the tongues of flame from Acts) or torches as symbology….

    There is this whole notion of requiring Universities to hire faculty equally from all ends of the political spectrum that sometimes comes under the mislabelled heading of freedom of speech or some such. Given that, and given that labelling has of advocacy groups has become (or, perhaps, always was) so amazingly deceptive (Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth”, anybody?), I’m skeptical before I even start reading this thing.

    Mind you, I’m very sympathetic to your views on over-the-top political correctness, Ed. But… often people’s frustration with how far beyond reasonable political correctness has gone is leveraged into talking points for censors from the other side.

    The highlights they pull out are pretty extreme… but, then, read some creationist literature, and you find some pretty extreme claims.

    I guess I’ve become too cynical to read anything political without questioning the motives of everybody behind it. Sigh.

    For instance, my old Alma Mater, Harvey Mudd, is a red light school. I’d like to see what was the clear violation of free speech that got them on that list. Indeed, I’d like to see that for all of them. No doubt at least some are egregious… but by only citing a few examples, it’s entirely possible that most of the reasons are innocuous, but by listing just the bad ones, we assume it’s bad everywhere.

    Or, perhaps, it really is. I just don’t know, and it’s not clear to me that I can trust this report without more pages of documentation than I’d be willing to read….

  2. #2 Gretchen
    December 11, 2006

    Who are these people?

    You can read for yourself all about the founders, board of directors, and staff here.

  3. #3 Julia
    December 11, 2006

    In the early days of my teaching, there was a lot of racial stereotyping and insult to deal with in the classroom, and in later years mostly comments about gays. Of course, anti-female comments were always popular. So I do think teachers need to place a few basic limits on speech in the classroom.

    My rules were always, “No obscenities, no personal attacks.” A student then could say, for example that he/she had a moral objection to homosexuality (in the rather unlikely case that such a comment was relevant to the material being discussed), but could not use vulgar or insulting terminology or direct his condemnation to a particular student.

    My experience was that even most angry or prejudiced students could focus on the class material for an hour without attacking anybody, and I felt justified in requiring it. When in the late sixties I made my way through pockets of left-over tear gas to find a classroom in which students had pulled their chairs around to create one area for blacks and one for whites, leaving an open area in the middle of the room, it was possible to get everyone to set aside insults and focus on the class material for an hour.

    Of course, controlling speech outside of class/lab meetings is quite a different thing.

  4. #4 Gretchen
    December 11, 2006

    For instance, my old Alma Mater, Harvey Mudd, is a red light school. I’d like to see what was the clear violation of free speech that got them on that list. Indeed, I’d like to see that for all of them.

    Harvey Mudd

    All of them

  5. #5 Rob Knop
    December 11, 2006

    So I do think teachers need to place a few basic limits on speech in the classroom.

    I absolutely agree with this. But a classroom, of course, is different from a University at large.

    As somebody who has increasingly become painfully aware of the climate problems for women in science, there are a lot of thorny issues here. I don’t think that the right solution is hypercensorship… but I do think people need to be aware of the effect that their words have on others, and that we all need to be aware of what’s going on. Social norms at the moment are not sufficient to provide for a reasonable climate for women in science. The answer is to try and shed some light and fix the social norms, rather than to clamp down on freedom of speech.

    But in the classroom… heck, in some cases just talking too much no matter what you’re saying, should be cause for ejection!


  6. #6 Rob Knop
    December 11, 2006

    Gretchen — thanks for the links.


  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    December 11, 2006


    FIRE is quite balanced in their approach, they’re not a right wing group that only complains about the left on campus. They have been as staunch in defense of the Wisconsin professor who claims 9/11 was faked as they have been against instances like the mob attack on Gilchrist’s speech at Columbia. They’re one of the few groups I’ve found that really is consistent in standing up for free speech regardless of the substance of the speech and whether it’s liberal or conservative. That reflects the fact that their board includes both Ed Meese and Nadine Strossen (as well as Alan Dershowitz).

  8. #8 Mikayla
    December 11, 2006

    I don’t like speech codes, and I respect FIRE’s purpose, but I wonder about their standard of evaluation. I’m a student at the University of Florida, and their justification for giving it a red light seems a little thin. Yes, it has a speech code, but judging from the portion reproduced on the site it’s fairly mild as they go, and frankly I didn’t even know it existed until now. Of the three newspaper articles posted about UF, only one actually relates to the university’s speech policies at all, and it suggests they’re more generous than those of many schools. FIRE doesn’t identify any incidents of censorship by the administration, and as far as I know there haven’t been any, at least in the last few years. The central plaza of the school has always been a thriving mix of protesters, performance artists, and street preachers. I’d like to see all universities allow the full range of speech permitted by the First Amendment, but I don’t think it helps the cause of free speech activists when we exaggerate the degree of censorship that actually happens.

  9. #9 jba
    December 11, 2006

    Mikayla: “I don’t think it helps the cause of free speech activists when we exaggerate the degree of censorship that actually happens.”

    I think thats an excellent point and not only for free speech. I think that whenever an activist exaggerates the actions of their opponent it does more harm than good. Case in point: PETA.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    December 11, 2006

    This report was based upon the actual written policies; the reports of specific instances of abuse were just there to illustrate what can happen when you have overly broad restrictions on the books like that. Their point is a valid one, and the fact that such policies are not used regularly only supports the argument that when they are used it is in an inconsistent manner.

  11. #11 Mithrandir
    December 11, 2006

    If a speech code is so broad that you can’t enforce it in every case where it applies without sparking massive outrage from the student body, then it is going to be selectively enforced to suppress minority opinions and ideologies.

    That’s bad for two reasons. One, suppressing even genuinely odious ideologies like Nazism only succeeds in driving them underground, and gives them the “come see the violence inherent in the system” recruiting tool. Two, sooner or later an ideology you like will end up in the minority.

  12. #12 AndyS
    December 11, 2006

    Has anyone seen negative effects from Canada’s hate-speech laws?

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    December 11, 2006

    AndyS wrote:

    Has anyone seen negative effects from Canada’s hate-speech laws?

    If you count people being charged with “crimes” that shouldn’t be crimes, sure. Ministers have been brought up on charges for expresing their views against homosexuality. That is the negative effect; no other need exist.

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