More than a dozen Bay State colleges have been called out on a list of schools with policies that “clearly and substantially restrict free speech,” a contentious issue in recent months amid student protests during the Israel-Hamas war.
The number of colleges and universities with the harshest student speech codes increased for the second year in a row, according to a new report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
FIRE’s “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report rates 489 of America’s top colleges and universities on their student speech policies. More than 85% of those schools have at least one policy that could be used to improperly censor students for constitutionally protected speech, FIRE reported.
This year’s report found that 98 colleges — or 20% — got a “red light” rating, meaning they have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
Massachusetts is home to 14 of those colleges: Boston College, Northeastern University, Tufts University, UMass Lowell, Fitchburg State University, Framingham State University, Worcester State University, Bridgewater State University, Salem State University, Clark University, College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State University.
After FIRE first began tracking schools’ speech codes, the number of schools earning the worst red light rating steadily decreased for 15 years in a row. But now, for the second year in a row, the percentage of red light schools has slightly increased.
“This is not an anomaly: Free speech in higher education is getting worse,” said Laura Beltz, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
“America’s top colleges are increasingly turning to censorship and terrible policies to police their students’ ability to speak freely,” Beltz added.
Meanwhile, 13 Bay State schools received a “yellow light” rating, meaning they have policies that are vague or restrict relatively narrow categories of speech. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — both at the epicenter of campus free speech since Hamas’ terrorist attacks — are in the yellow light category.
University speech codes came to the forefront in December when the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania were blasted by Republican members of Congress in an explosive hearing. Claudine Gay, then the president of Harvard, refused to characterize calls for the genocide of Jews as a breach of Harvard’s code of conduct. Gay later resigned.
According to FIRE, calls for genocide that do not cross the line into true threats or harassment are protected speech, and schools adopting a “genocide” exemption would only open the door to more speech restrictions.
“Rather than eroding free speech protections during times of crisis, schools must strengthen their policies and apply them evenhandedly — and regardless of the political viewpoint at hand,” Beltz said. “Many schools maintain overbroad or vague policies on misconduct like true threats, incitement to violence, and harassment. Schools must ensure those policies track First Amendment standards and enforce them consistently.”