Universities fail free speech test

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in ItFree speech on campus. Or, lack thereof. 

A report that’s just been released highlights a disturbing trend: that colleges and universities in this country are violating students’ First Amendment rights.

The organization that produced the report is known by the acronym F.I.R.E,  Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Each year the nonprofit group compiles a report on the status of free speech in American higher education.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: This year’s analysis showed some discouraging results: only 1 in 10 schools earned the highest rating for respecting constitutionally protected rights of students. 

Laura Beltz is a senior program officer with F.I.R.E. She is the lead author of this year’s study and joins us now to talk about it. 

Good morning, Laura!

LAURA BELTZ, GUEST: Good morning! Thanks for having me.

REICHARD: Well, another way to look at this is that so many colleges and universities have actual written policies that restrict free speech on campus. A quarter of them, I believe. What are some examples of these restrictions?

BELTZ: Sure. So those worst examples that quarter represents—the ones that earn a red light rating—are things like bans on insulting or embarrassing speech, offensive speech, bans on material that is annoying the sole judgment of the university, the policy actually says. And then you have requirements in policies that say things like you have to get permission at least two weeks in advance in order to just hand out flyers on campus. So, altogether when you have policies like that that are restricting the content of the speech and how you can get out and express yourself, students are discouraged and even prevented from expressing themselves.

REICHARD: Those policies are blatantly unconstitutional, right? So why do schools keep writing them?

BELTZ: Well, I think a lot of times the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. One department at a school will bring out a policy—maybe they don’t run it by the legal office—and perhaps they’re not quite aware of First Amendment legal standards. So, it’s our goal with the report to shine a light on all these policies to make sure that universities are aware of what is on the books and so that they can get them fixed up to better meet First Amendment standards.

REICHARD: Some of our listeners likely have students at Christian colleges and universities. Those schools are private and they aren’t legally bound to comply with free speech protections. Tell us what you found about the state of free speech at private schools as compared to public schools?

BELTZ: Well, most private schools do promise their students free speech in their written materials. And so when colleges say that they will have free speech rights on campus, they are morally obligated to uphold those rights and sometimes they’re even legally obligated to do so because courts have found that a student handbook and other written materials act as a sort of contract between a school and their students. But, unfortunately, private schools are doing worse than public schools as far as the protection of free speech. And we’re seeing many more private colleges getting that worst red light rating.

REICHARD: What’s driving that?

BELTZ: Well, of course the private schools aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment, so I think they feel less of that pressure. And at public schools, there’s the added pressure of state legislatures getting on their case about this. A lot of state legislatures have passed statutes banning certain types of speech codes like free speech zone policies, which makes students go to a particular out of the way area on campus if they want to hold a protest or hand out flyers, things like that. But the private universities just don’t have that same pressure.

REICHARD: Your report documented some good news, too. We should talk about that. That’s in regard to something called the Chicago Statement. What is that and how is it changing how schools treat free speech over the past year?

BELTZ: Well, the Chicago statement is a policy that was first passed by the University of Chicago that affirmatively commits a college to actively prioritizing and defending free speech. And it actually makes clear that it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. And the statement in that way encourages students to engage with ideas that they disagree with rather than trying to censor those ideas. So, we think it’s great that there are many universities—both public and private—that are adopting their own version of this statement because it really sets the right tone for free speech on campus.

REICHARD: Laura Beltz is with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Thanks so much for joining us today!

BELTZ: Thanks very much for having me.


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