Free Speech-less

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus is now recognized as a campus group at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. An alternative monthly publication, Jerk Magazine, has been allowed to its distribute copies along with the “official” publication on the Syracuse University campus. Yale has apologized for preventing students from printing an F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation about Harvard “sissies” on a Yale T-shirt.

In just a six-week period, the above schools ended or admitted these serious violations of free speech, largely because of the efforts of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). This Philadelphia-based organization regularly issues alerts about places where schools are clamping down on 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.”

This month, 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 emails and other regulations. Azhar Majeed, FIRE’s associate director of legal and public advocacy, evaluated school policies for the Pope Center, using FIRE’s methodology. The report covers 55 four-year colleges in the state, both public and private.

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.

In North Carolina, 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 of the North Carolina schools examined in the study received “red light” rankings, which means that they “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech. Another 16 schools received “yellow light” rankings, indicating that the threat from the school is somewhere in between—the school has some policies that “could ban or excessively regulate protected speech.”

Campuses in the University of North Carolina system are equally divided between red and yellow lights. Red-light schools (clearly restricting freedom of speech) are: Appalachian State, East Carolina, North Carolina Central, UNC School of the Arts, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, Western Carolina, and Winston-Salem State. Yellow-light schools (with rules that could restrict freedom of speech) are: Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State University, N.C. A & T, N.C. State, UNC Asheville, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Pembroke, and UNC Wilmington.

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—is within their right of freedom of assembly. In other words, like-minded people are constitutionally permitted to form private associations that mandate specific beliefs or behavior among their members. To illustrate, a Teatotalers Club has the right to sanction, punish, or expel members who advocate hard drinking.

Indeed, the existence of such schools is a healthy reflection of 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 email.  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, 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 more egregious 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…disrespect for persons.”
  • Campbell University prohibits “obscene or indecorous language or conduct indicating his/her disapproval of any matter.”

Do North Carolina Students Have Freedom of Speech? reflects the Pope Center’s ongoing interest in encouraging diversity of thought at North Carolina’s colleges and universities. Paper copies are available from the Pope Center. The specific violations at each North Carolina college or university can be found at