There’s good news — but not enough good news — on the campus free-speech front.
Freedom of speech continues to be under attack on the nation’s college campuses. But things could be — and actually have been — worse.
That’s the conclusion of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which recently completed its annual review of campus speech issues on 471 colleges and universities.
Since this is the holiday season of good cheer, let’s start with the positive.
FIRE reports that the percentage of schools with the worst “red light” rating has declined precipitously since the organization conducted its 2009 review.
“The percentage of schools earning an overall ‘red light’ rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database has gone down for the twelfth year in a row, this year to 24.2 percent. This is over a four percentage point drop from last year, and is exactly 50 percentage points lower than the percentage of red light institutions in FIRE’s 2009 report,” the organization states in what it calls its “list of major findings.”
At the same time, FIRE reports that its list of schools receiving a “green light” rating — its top score — numbers 52.
“Policies earn a green light rating when they do not seriously threaten protected expression. Only eight institutions earned a green light rating in FIRE’s 2009 report,” FIRE states.
So, while there is still considerable work to do to bring campuses into accord with the free speech right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there has been considerable progress.
Why? It’s impossible to say for sure.
But enlightened leaders at some universities, including Purdue and the University of Chicago, have gone out of their way to emphasize the issue with a declaration of free speech principles.
They have pointed out the obvious — that freedom of speech is not only a healthy practice in a democratic society but it’s an inherent strength to systems of higher education that depend on a healthy exchange of ideas, academic and otherwise.
Unfortunately, that attitude is not, for a variety of reasons antithetical to a free society, as widely embraced as it should be.
The University of Illinois fared poorly in the survey — its Chicago and Springfield campuses earning “red light” ratings while the local campus escaped with a “yellow light” designation.
Other state universities also received the lowest scores — Eastern, Western, Northern and both Southern Illinois University campuses received “red light” scores. So did Chicago State and Governors State.
According to FIRE’s standards, a “red light” university “maintains at least one policy (that) both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
“Yellow light” standard institutions maintain “policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.”
Finally, the written policies at “green light” institutions “do not pose a serious threat to free speech.”
Despite improvement on the free speech front, the imbalance is obvious — 88 percent of the institutions surveyed have policies that either are partly or totally hostile to free speech.
They employ campus speech codes or enforcement units like “bias response teams” to police campus conversations and impose penalties on those presumed to be in violation.
While the University of Michigan recently agreed to disband its “bias response team” as a consequence of litigation, UI Chancellor Robert Jones is continuing a legal battle in federal court to keep his enforcers on the job.
There is no question that freedom of speech isn’t as popular on campuses as it used to be. Indeed, the professoriate could once be counted on not only to speak up but support the rights of others — both students, faculty and staff — to do the same. Now too many of them are actively hostile to the notion of being exposed to ideas or arguments they do not share.
When the faculty members fail such an important test of intellectual honesty, it’s no surprise that many of their students follow blindly along. Hence, there are calls for safe spaces and talk of physical and psychological injury caused by exposure to mere words.
The good news, of course, is that the campus speech police frequently lose when they are challenged in the court. The rule of law still trumps the rule of petty campus bureaucrats.
That litigation is sometimes required is extremely worrisome. So, too, is the fact that FIRE feels compelled to do the important work of examining and reporting on the threat to such an important freedom in what used to be — and perhaps will be again — citadels for the free exchange of ideas.