Opinion: Daily Journal

Ability to exercise free speech should be critical factor when choosing a college

Earning a scholarship to a college or university — whether that scholarship is academic or athletic — is quite the accomplishment, both for the student and the respective family. It relieves a huge financial obligation to be sure, but it also portends a positive future for the new student, who is arguably getting a head start toward adulthood and all that entails.

The same goes for choosing a school after getting a few or dozens of acceptance letters. Options are considered and analyzed. Choices are made. Much is considered, and the variables are mostly obvious — location, relevant programs, academic ranking, etc.

The ability to practice free speech should be paramount among them, but, and I could be wrong, it probably isn’t a top priority for students when choosing a college. In America, it’s a right that’s mostly taken for granted.

It shouldn’t be.

North Carolina, as Kari Travis pointed out in a recent story for Carolina Journal, has become a national front-runner in protecting campus speech rights, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE, a nonprofit research and legal organization, each year looks at more than 450 public and private universities, and ratings are based on the constitutionality of their speech policies.

Red-light schools have restrictive policies — such as free speech zones or bans on “offensive speech.” Yellow-light schools hold vaguely worded policies — such as rules against “verbal abuse” that may be used to restrict free expression. Green-light schools have written policies posing no threat to the First Amendment.

North Carolina, Travis wrote, is home to eight green-light schools, far and away the national leader, Samantha Harris, a FIRE spokeswoman, told Carolina Journal. Pennsylvania is next with four, followed by Indiana and Virginia, with three each.

In 2016, only UNC-Chapel Hill was ranked green, Travis wrote, citing the report. In May 2017, UNC Greensboro and N.C. Central, formerly ranked as red-light schools, saw their lights turn green. Appalachian State University, UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University, and UNC-Wilmington were green-lighted later that year.

Duke University is North Carolina’s only private school with a green light.

This year, 93 of 357 public universities were ranked red, and 233 were yellow. Only 31 got a green light. Red-light schools include the University of Alabama-Birmingham, six schools in the California state system, Clemson University, Florida State University, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

And those are public schools.

Of 104 private colleges, 56 were red, 37 were yellow, and four were green. The remaining seven schools were labeled as “warning schools,” which don’t promise free speech. Those universities prioritize other values — many religious — over the First Amendment.

In North Carolina, two prominent and prestigious private schools — Davidson College and Wake Forest University — were, says FIRE, stopped on red.

“A ‘red light’ institution, FIRE says, has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A ‘clear’ restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression. In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied. When a university restricts access to its speech-related policies by requiring a login and password, it denies prospective students and their parents the ability to weigh this crucial information. At FIRE, we consider this action by a university to be deceptive and serious enough that it alone warrants a ‘red light’ rating.”

For Davidson, FIRE took issue with the college’s policies on bias and hate speech and harassment. For Wake Forest, FIRE found problems with its policies concerning harassment and posting and distribution.

This, too, comes with a caveat.

“While private universities are not legally bound by the First Amendment — which regulates government actors — most, says FIRE, make extensive promises of free speech to their students and faculty. When private institutions make such promises, speech codes impermissibly violate them.”

Students and prospective students — and their parents — should know this. Again, I’m guessing that many don’t.

Students do indeed have an expectation of free speech on campus, even when attending a private university, save some religious institutions and other schools with clearly defined missions stating otherwise.

Due diligence, by students and parents, can’t be discounted here. As FIRE says — and it can’t be said too often or too loudly — Stay vigilant.