By Bethany Blankley
More than half a million students at the top 471 U.S. colleges must find a “free speech zone” to exercise their First Amendment Right to freedom of expression, according to a new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Limiting free speech on Texas college and university campuses became illegal Sept. 1, 2019. However, many Texas institutions evaluated by FIRE are violating the law.
The new report, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2020: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” reviewed the written policies of 471 top U.S. colleges and universities and found that 89 percent “maintain policies that restrict – or could too easily be applied to restrict – student expression.”
FIRE rates schools according to stoplight colors of “red light,” which is the worst, “yellow light,” and “green light,” which is the best, to indicate how restrictive school’s speech policies are.
In 2019, 25 percent of U.S. colleges analyzed received a “red light” rating indicating their policies “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.
Texas schools making the most speech restrictive list include the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at Dallas.
The majority of the schools analyzed nationwide fell in the middle, with 64 percent receiving a “Yellow light” ranking.
Texas schools making that distinction include Sam Houston State University, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Texas at Tyler, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas Southern University, Texas State University – San Marcos, and Texas Tech University.
Eleven percent of U.S. colleges and universities received a “green light” rating. The only Texas school to make the list was Texas A&M University.
Arizona and Mississippi are the only states whose colleges and universities are all green light ranked, FIRE notes.
“Many college administrators are scrubbing the most egregious policies from the books, but they’re increasingly crafting subtler policies that still limit student expression,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Laura Beltz, the lead author of the study. “Yellow light policies aren’t good enough – they still restrict protected speech. Colleges must go green or go back to the drawing board.”
To date, 68 administrations or faculty bodies have adopted statements in support of free speech modeled after a University of Chicago declaration adopted in January 2015.
In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a measure to protect free speech on college campuses statewide. The bill went into effect Sept. 1, 2019.
Senate Bill 18, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, requires universities to allow anyone to engage in free speech activities on campus, creates disciplinary sanctions for students who interfere with the free speech activities of others, and establishes a process for addressing complaints of potential free speech violations.
“I shouldn’t have to do it,” Abbott said in a video he recorded while signing the bill. “The First Amendment guarantees it. Now it’s law in Texas.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, praised the bill, saying, “The First Amendment is under constant attack by those who shut down ideas they can’t contend with. The University is a place for students to grapple with new ideas and opinions, not be coddled.”