FIRE’s Fourth Annual Report on Campus Speech Codes Reveals a New Trend: Secret Speech Codes

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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2010: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses provides a sobering view of the lack of respect for First Amendment freedoms on our nation’s campuses, particularly public campuses.  The report rates the speech codes of 375 American colleges and universities on a “red light, yellow light, green light” basis.  One recent development in particular deserves attention:

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 discover and 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. We have had to update our rating criteria to reflect this, as FIRE has only begun to see this trend emerge over the past year.

If universities view speech codes as a positive good for the benefit of students and faculty, why would they not publicize the codes, or even boast about them?  The secrecy, assuming it is intentional, reveals a subtle but not unexpected attitude behind the speech codes. 

Universities typically advertise benefits for their prospective students, such as the availability of student organizations, quality campus safety services and low crime rates.  They do not typically flaunt policies designed to protect university interests or punish students, such as dorm rules and alcohol restrictions.  When a school intentionally suppresses its campus speech code, it signals that in the eyes of the university, the code is less about protecting purportedly vulnerable individuals or ensuring a welcoming environment and more about punishing those who deviate from the politically correct standard. 

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