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Higher Education Watch
Speech Codes Decline, But Campus Illiberalism Persists

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-partisan academic civil liberties watchdog, is often the bearer of bad news when it comes to open debate on college campuses. But the group’s latest report actually contains modest cause for optimism:

This year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) saw an unprecedented decline in the percentage of universities maintaining written policies that severely restrict students’ free speech rights. This is the ninth year in a row that the percentage has dropped. […]

“The precipitous decline in restrictive speech codes means thousands of current and future students and faculty members will not be subject to policies that clearly violate their basic rights,” said FIRE Vice President of Policy Research Samantha Harris. “Over the past year, FIRE used all the resources at our disposal to achieve this result. We’ve worked collaboratively with college administrators and even members of Congress to reform policies, and litigated against speech codes when necessary. FIRE will continue our reform efforts until the last speech code is eliminated.”

When FIRE was founded in the 1990s, campuses were embroiled in heated debates over “speech codes”—codified rules, often introduced in harassment policies, that punished students for potentially offensive speech. Some of these policies were struck down by the courts, and according to FIRE data, universities have been gradually moving away from them since the 2000s.

Nonetheless, as FIRE notes, the decline of formal bureaucratic prohibitions on speech hasn’t produced a more open campus environment overall in the last several years. When a Yale lecturer questioned the wisdom of Halloween costume regulations, it wasn’t a speech code, but merely the closed-minded mob mentality of undergraduates, that led her to leave her teaching post. Similarly, when New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was cut off in the middle of a speech it Brown, it wasn’t because of an administrative regulation, but because students shouted him down.

Justice Scalia once noted that “every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights,” to emphasize that norms and habits of mind are more important to sustaining freedom than “parchment guarantees.” The same is true on campus: Campuses should have policies that encourage open dialogue, but it is equally crucial that the academic community actually internalizes these values in a deeper way. One rather pessimistic way of looking at the current trends—the decline of speech codes along with rising social intolerance of unpopular opinions—is that while administrators are discovering the importance of formal commitments to liberalism, it is being lost on student bodies.

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  • Beauceron

    Read an article about how students at U Penn tore down a portrait of Shakespeare last week because he was white and they replaced it with a portrait of the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior” poet Audre Lorde, whose actual work is mediocre at best. But she’s black and lesbian and female, which counts for more than the actual writing in English departments these days. ( All with the support of the faculty.

    I don’t know what to say to these people. More and more, I don’t want to argue and debate with them, I just do not want to share a country with them.

    • Observe&Report

      We’ve had to deal with similar nonsense in Britain, albeit in milder form. A few years ago, a black South African exchange student studying at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship started a campaign to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed; the man who created and endowed the very scholarship programme that allowed him to come to Britain and study in the first place. Fortunately, the campaign failed.–oxford-university

    • dwk67

      Nothing can be good anymore if it isn’t perfect. Overcompensation has become vice today. Every real or perceived injustice of the past must be atoned for by vehemently disowning all the good in our heritage and elevating the mediocrity of others into its place. This road ends in cultural and civilizational suicide if followed to its conclusion. Simply put, this is mental illness on a massive scale…

    • lurkingwithintent

      There is nothing you can say, because it is not about anything more than justification for their desire and attempts to have power. That is why it doesn’t matter that Cecil Rhodes created a scholarship and Alfred Nobel a peace prize or Shakespeare writing was a pinnacle of English literature, because that isn’t the point. Multiculturalism is purely and simply a way of gaining power by undercutting everything that was held to be of value in Western Culture, while denying that those who practice said multiculturalism are practicing a rather pernicious and imperialistic form of the Western philosophical tradition. Mental illness is the correct term.

    • Fat_Man

      Take away their tax exemptions.

    • QET

      What’s more, they did it in the name of “inclusion”! Here is our 2016 Newspeak: inclusion = replacement.

  • Anthony

    “Irish, Italian, Jew, black, Norwegian, Puerto Rican: America has always presented abundant opportunities for tribal hostility. The existential challenge for this country has been to unite a diverse population with no shared history or customs or language into a cohesive and loyal whole. Identity politics discounts this fragility and takes for granted the peaceful coexistence in a multiethnic, multiracial democracy….” (Kay Hymowitz – why Identity Politics are not All-American:

    • CapitalHawk

      diversity + proximity = war

      • Anthony

        War then! But, Hymowitz thinks contrary – read her (she’s been at this a long time).

        • CapitalHawk

          Kay Hymowitz?

          • Anthony


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