In theory, America’s colleges and universities are strongholds of classically liberal ideals, including the protection of an individual’s right to open debate and inquiry. In real life, however, this is often not the case. Across the country, universities deny students and faculty constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and expression.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based organization, regularly issues alerts about clampdown on the rights of freedom of speech. Donald Downs, a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has called FIRE “the leading professional organization dedicated to academic freedom in higher education.”
In February, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy joined with FIRE to report on the state of freedom of speech in North Carolina. The new report, “Do North Carolina Students Have Freedom of Speech?” by the Pope Center’s Jenna Ashley Robinson, is based on careful scrutiny of speech codes, harassment policies, restrictions on e-mails, and other regulations.
The Pope Center worked with Azhar Majeed, FIRE’s associate director of legal and public advocacy, who evaluated school policies using FIRE’s methodology. The report covers 55 four-year colleges in the state, public and private.
The report shows that no school truly protects freedom of speech. The report, which lists the rating of each school on freedom of expression, does not include a single “green light” — FIRE’s signal that schools do not threaten students’ free-speech rights.
More than half — 34 schools — in North Carolina received “red light” rankings, meaning that they “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech. Another 16 schools received a “yellow light” ranking, indicating that some threat from the school — it has some policies that “could ban or excessively regulate protected speech.”
A few private schools, out of conviction, place religious values higher than freedom of speech. They are marked in the Pope Center report as “not rated,” and no criticism is intended, explains Robinson. Their choice to restrict speech — and to inform their students — reflects the diversity of the nation’s institutions.
But many private schools claim to provide open inquiry and do not, says Robinson. She cites Duke University as an example. It states that the university “cherishes freedom of expression, the diversity of values and perspectives inherent in an academic institution, the right to acknowledgment, and the value of privacy for all members of the Duke community.” Its computing and electronic communications policy, however, restricts what students can send by e-mail. Duke received a yellow-light ranking.
“Some university policies may look like rules to protect decorum or foster good manners,” writes Robinson, “but they are often so broad that they can stifle the free exchange of ideas.” Speech-code prohibitions against “innuendoes,” “teasing,” and “disdain,” for example, can repress free expression.
Robinson quotes FIRE: “The university setting is where students are most subject to the assignment of group identity, to indoctrination of radical political orthodoxies, to legal inequality, to intrusion into private conscience, and to assaults upon the morality of individual rights and responsibilities.”
Among the examples of policies that restrict speech in North Carolina:
• Davidson College bans “innuendoes,” “teasing,” “jokes,” and “comments or inquiries about dating.”
• Livingstone College prohibits any conduct or expression that is “offensive or annoying to others.”
• UNC-Greensboro “will not tolerate any harassment of, discrimination against, or disrespect for persons.”
• Campbell University prohibits “obscene or indecorous language or conduct indicating his/her disapproval of any matter.”
The publication and distribution of Do North Carolina Students Have Freedom of Speech? reflect the Pope Center’s ongoing interest in encouraging diversity of thought at North Carolina’s colleges and universities. Copies of the paper are available from the Pope Center and also are located on the Web site at popecenter.org, along with details of the specific violations at each North Carolina college or university.
Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (popecenter.org).