An organization is known as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE has just released a report that finds that the vast majority of schools have speech codes that they think might curtail free speech. The organization looked at 461 different schools across America and ranked them using a system based on traffic lights. Red lights were given to the most restrictive, yellow lights were given to schools with relatively light restrictions, and green lights were given to schools that had few restrictions in their written policies.
Free speech has always been a big issue on college campuses, but the topic looks a lot different today than it did in the sixties and seventies. In the heyday of the hippie’s colleges like Berkeley College in Northern California were known for their “everything goes” approach to free speech. Now a tug of war is going on between who are concerned with curbing hate speech and those who fear that such attempts will ultimately curtail free speech.
While the study’s findings are inspiring some frightening headlines, it is important to look at the larger context. FIRE makes a special point of emphasizing the fact that this year they gave out 35 green lights, the best score on their scale. This is almost five times higher than the eight green lights they gave out in 2008. As the number of green lights has increased the number of red lights has gone down.
Free speech activists aren’t always hopeful about the future, but they don’t need to be. FIRE’s latest study shows that free speech codes have loosened across the country for almost a decade straight. Of course, written policies don’t always perfectly reflect the behavior and atmosphere on campus. The issue remains contentious and shows no sign of going away anytime soon.