North Carolina universities have drastically improved First Amendment protections since 2010, a new report says.

Public and private institutions across the state were graded poorly on free speech rights less than a decade ago, show data collected by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal — both higher education nonprofits. The report, to be officially released Sept. 24, studied 37 North Carolina universities and found 11 improved free speech protections, 23 remained the same, and three were hit with lower ratings than those awarded in 2010.

Each year, FIRE ranks more than 400 universities on free speech. Some pass with flying colors. Others fail the test.

Red-light universities have at least one policy that clearly restricts speech. Yellow-light institutions limit expression through vague wording that could be used to infringe on rights. Green-light universities hold no policies that threaten the speech rights of students.

In 2010, all 17 schools in the University of North Carolina system were ranked yellow or red. To date, seven have earned green lights. The remaining nine are ranked yellow.

Only one private institution, Duke University, has earned a green light since 2010.

With eight green-light schools to its credit, North Carolina leads the nation in protecting campus free speech, the report says.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — which most recently has attracted national headlines from protests surrounding Silent Sam, a Confederate statue formerly housed on its campus — was the original trendsetter for North Carolina colleges, earning its green light in 2010.

Appalachian State University, UNC Charlotte, East Carolina University, UNC Greensboro, N.C. Central University, and UNC Wilmington earned green-light ratings as of 2017.

Those campuses revised speech policies just as the General Assembly passed House Bill 527, a law to preserve free speech at public universities. Some said the measure was unnecessary, since UNC schools already were overhauling speech rules. Others lauded it as a way to formally reinforce First Amendment rights.

The law mandates UNC campuses consistently enforce the First Amendment and requires universities be open to any invited speaker. It also assigns the UNC Board of Governors — the system’s policymaking body — to track “barriers or disruptions to free expression within the constituent institutions.”

Though universities are making progress, many trouble spots remain, the report says. Seventeen colleges in North Carolina hold red-light ratings, and 11 remain in the yellow category.

Institutions can improve by overhauling regulations and adopting free speech policy statements — similar to the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” instated at the University of Chicago in 2015.

Winston-Salem State University, a UNC school with a yellow light rating, in 2015 enacted such a policy with the guidance of its faculty.

Other schools should do the same, the report says.

“In today’s climate for freedom of expression … institutional adoption of a principled free speech statement will go a long way toward educating campus community members and affirming the values of the First Amendment.”