Most universities continue to fare poorly on free speech, study says

College campuses are not perfect protectors of free speech.

So say the findings of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which released its 2010 study of university speech codes.

In the study, FIRE analyzed the publicly available speech policies at 150 universities rated highly in 2008’s “America’s Best Colleges” published in U.S. News and World Report, as well as those of an additional 222 public universities.

They found that the number of public schools which restrict free speech has declined sharply, from 79 percent two years ago to 71 percent this year. However, among private schools, infringements grew from 67 percent last year to 70 percent this year.

The decline in speech codes within public universities is due to increased consciousness on part of school administrators to protect student rights, said Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for the slight, but still disappointing increase in speech restrictions on private campuses,” Creeley said. “FIRE will continue to fight speech codes at private colleges that guarantee their students the right to engage in unfettered expression – which, unsurprisingly, is the vast majority of private institutions.”

FIRE rates universities and colleges in three tiers according to the degree of protected speech they restrain. It defines red-light universities as those with at least one policy which clearly and significantly constricts freedom of speech or limits access to speech related policies with a university login and password.

Yellow light universities have policies that may be interpreted speech or policies that restrict narrow categories of speech. Green light colleges are those deemed by FIRE to have no policies that seriously endanger speech.

UC Davis has been denoted as a red light university.

Among the UC Davis policies that have led to its red-light rating are rules concerning sexual harassment and its guide to residence hall life policies, including computer use and respect. Creeley pointed to the computer use guideline against offensive material as violating the first amendment protection for offensive speech and is subjective in its nature.

However some disagree with FIRE’s characterization that UC Davis’ speech policies are restrictive.

“The computer use policy that FIRE refers to is not the campuswide Electronic Communications Policy or Acceptable Use Policy, but a guide for the residence halls,” said Donald Dudley, associate director of Student Judicial Affairs.

Dudley said the actual campuswide policy, UC Davis Electronic Communications Policy and Acceptable Use Policy, does not have this language but also that student housing will review its guide and make changes for it to conform to campus policy.

“Campus policies related to speech are to be interpreted and applied consistently with the freedom of expression under the First Amendment,” Dudley said, “The university routinely reviews its policies and amends them to reflect current legal standards.”

Another issue where FIRE has faulted universities is the subject of controversial speakers on campus grounds. The study said several universities have been charging security fees for controversial speakers.

Although UC Davis has not been guilty of levying protection fees for speakers, FIRE has been critical of UC Davis after it withdrew a speaking invitation for former Harvard president Larry Summers in 2007. UC Davis faculty supported a petition that asked the UC Regents to rescind the invitation.

Don Abbott, professor of English said FIRE’s claims that UC Davis actively campaigned against Summers and that UC Davis is highly restrictive are exaggerated but said universities should be open to controversial speakers.

“I do believe that universities should do all they can to encourage appearances by controversial speakers,” Abbott said. “Certainly the First Amendment should protect the right of individuals to present silly ideas.”

Yet Creeley believes while universities may be improving in their speech policies, the presence of such restrictions, even if unenforced, tells students that their rights are not as extensive as the constitution permits.

“Teaching students that censorship is an appropriate, justified and even romantic response to unwanted or unpopular speech – even that speech with which we most vehemently disagree – misinforms students about what it means to be a citizen and the lasting value of the principles enshrined in the First Amendment,” Creeley said. “Everyone has an equal right to speak their mind.”

LESLIE TSAN can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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