ben.chaney/FlickrUC Berkeley students protest a fee hike Sept. 24, 2009.
A new report from a national free speech advocacy organization found most of the four-year universities it surveyed had speech codes that substantially limit students' freedom of speech, including dozens of colleges in California.
In its annual report, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed speech code policies at the top 100 national universities and top 50 liberal arts colleges from U.S. News and World Report, along with 237 colleges the organization labeled as "major public universities."
The "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011" report gave colleges a red-, yellow- or green-light rating based on how much their policies restrict free speech.
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Of the 390 schools reviewed, 67 percent got a red light, 27 percent got a yellow light and 3 percent got a green light. Another 3 percent got no rating because they were private institutions that flatly stated they hold certain values above a commitment to free speech, such as Pepperdine University in Malibu.
Of the 33 California universities the organization rated, 64 percent got a red light, including San Diego State University, UC Santa Cruz and Claremont McKenna College. About 36 percent got a yellow light, including UC Berkeley, Occidental College and San Jose State University. No California college received a green light.
As defined by the report, a red light means the university's policy clearly and substantially limits freedom of speech or bars public access to speech policies on the web. Three colleges got the red light label for requiring a password to view speech-related policies – including Stanford University.
UC Santa Cruz got a red light in part for its harassment policy, which includes "sexual jokes, comments or innuendos" and "remarks about a person's body" as examples of prohibited sexual harassment.
A yellow light means the university's policies could be interpreted to suppress protected speech, or its policies restrict narrow categories of free speech, such as "posters promoting alcohol consumption." A green light means the college's policies do not seriously threaten campus expression.
Although the report notes that the nation's major universities have a long way to go towards protecting free speech on campus, the percentage of red-light universities declined for the third year in a row, an "exciting trend for everyone concerned with free speech on campus," the report said.
One emerging trend concerned students' online communications. Some universities have maintained electronic communication policies that the report says severely limit free speech at a time when students increasingly interact online.
Cal Tech prohibits students from using electronic information resources to offend someone. Claremont McKenna College prohibits the electronic transmission of any derogatory or offensive material, including “anything that might be construed as harassment or disparagement based on race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or religious or political beliefs.”
Colleges are more prone these days to treat remarks or references to firearms as threatening regardless of context, the report notes. Many colleges prohibit deeply offensive speech, saying it could incite violence – even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can't punish speech unless it incites reasonable people to immediate violence.
The news wasn't all bad on the free-speech front in 2010. San Francisco State University got kudos from First Amendment advocates for getting rid of its "free speech zones" – spatial restrictions on where rallies and demonstrations could take place on campus.
For more information on why the organization gave a college its rating, use the searchable spotlight database.
|California college and university speech code ratings|
|California Institute of Technology|
|CSU Dominguez Hills|
|CSU Long Beach|
|CSU Los Angeles|
|CSU Monterey Bay|
|CSU San Bernardino|
|CSU San Marcos|
|Claremont McKenna College|
|San Diego State University|
|San Francisco State University|
|UC San Diego|
|UC Santa Cruz|
|Cal Poly San Luis Obispo|
|CSU East Bay|
|San Jose State University|
|UC Santa Barbara|