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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