Opinion: Free speech improving on college campuses

(Record Advocate)–For years, free speech on college campuses has been waning. Some schools create “free speech zones” where the First Amendment applies, while outside of those zones students must adhere to strict rules about what they can say.

Most of what’s deemed unacceptable speech tends to coincide with what ideology a student aligns with: conservativism bad, progressivism good. That sort of thing.

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In recent years, the introduction of and increase in “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and claims of “microaggressions” has created new hazards for free speech on college campuses. Students who are offended can now claim to be oppressed and in need of safety. Those doing the offending, even if they had no such intention, are punished or ridiculed.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has been documenting problematic speech codes on college campuses for years, and has just released a report of its findings for 2017. Colleges and universities have made improvements to their policies for the upcoming school year, but they are still far from acceptable.

FIRE uses a traffic-light rating system. Green lights indicate that “a university’s policies do not seriously threaten campus expression, that college or university receives a green light rating.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that a school is perfect when it comes to free speech, but at least it’s policies are better than most.

A yellow light shows that a school’s written policies could restrict free speech, or clearly do restrict free speech, but only for narrow categories of speech, such as banning posters that promote alcohol consumption.

A school receives a red light when it has at least one policy that “both clearly and substantially restrict[s] freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.”

Finally, a blue light is a warning that a school does not defend free speech.

In FIRE’s report last year, 49.3 percent of schools earned a red light rating. After FIRE surveyed 449 school’s policies for the upcoming school year, it found that 39.6 percent maintained a red light rating – a 10-point drop from last year. That’s a huge improvement, but it still means that nearly two out five schools severely limit free speech.

FIRE’s report shows that this is the ninth year in a row where the percentage of red light rated schools has dropped.

Another positive step is that 27 schools received a green light rating, up from 22 last year. Some of this appears to have stemmed from a letter sent by the University of Chicago, which told incoming students that it would not support “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces” or disinviting speakers because some students disagree with their pasts or points of view.

After Chicago posted that, 20 schools in FIRE’s Spotlight database endorsed a version of the letter.

While these are positives, there is still more work to be done. 52.8 percent of schools maintained a yellow light rating (a school can have multiple ratings for multiple policies).

Public colleges and universities are making more progress than their private brethren.

Nine years ago, 79 percent of public schools received a red light rating from FIRE, while today, 33.9 percent received the same rating. 58.7 percent of private universities still earn a red light rating, down just slightly from last year’s 60.6 percent.

Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research at FIRE and the author of this year’s report, told Watchdog that if the First Amendment is to be maintained on college campuses, it will take hard work from dedicated activists.

“I think the critical takeaway from this year’s findings is that while we are very happy with the progress we have seen, it was the result of very hard work – and could easily be undone if free speech advocates think we can rest on our laurels now,” Harris said. “There is still a lot of pressure on universities to restrict student and faculty speech, and we have to keep identifying and addressing those threats whenever and wherever they arise.”

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