January 31, 2024 - 7:00am

An overwhelming majority of American universities impose regulations on students’ free speech, a new report has found.

Among 489 American universities surveyed, 85% have policies in place that restrict speech, according to analysis from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). About two-thirds restrict speech through vague regulations on student expression, while 20% have policies on the books that “clearly and substantially” limit free speech. 

Another eight schools, most of which are religious colleges or military academies, do not promise free speech at all. Only 63 colleges, or 12.9%, received green-light rankings, meaning they do not have policies that seriously restrict student speech.

Hard restrictions on free speech, which earn a red-light label from FIRE, have seen a slight uptick over the past three years following a 40% decrease over the previous decade. Meanwhile, yellow-light restrictions – vague limits on expression – have followed the opposite pattern, rising 35% since 2012 and dipping slightly over the past two years. 

The rankings are based on schools’ written speech policies and do not take into account school actions that restrict speech beyond those rules. Most campus speech policies are aimed at combatting bullying, harassment and bias, promoting civility, and controlling protests and demonstrations. Schools also restrict students’ expression on social media and in the content of materials distributed on campus. 

Professors have been affected as well as students. Previous FIRE research revealed that the number of college and university academics subjected to attempted punishment between 2020 and 2022 (509) almost matched the corresponding number for the 20 years prior to 2020 (571).

FIRE’s latest findings reflect American universities’ contentious relationship with free speech, a trend noticeable since campus culture wars ignited around 2016 with Donald Trump’s election victory. Left-leaning students staged protests against the president-elect, while Right-wing campus groups inspired demonstrations by bringing in controversial speakers such as Ben Shapiro. Turning Point USA, a firebrand Right-wing campus organisation, soared in prominence, as did Democratic Socialists of America. 

Free speech on campus has been a rallying cry for Republicans over the past decade, as conservative academics and students have both been found to be more likely to self-censor than their liberal counterparts. That framework has been inverted in recent months, as universities place restrictions on anti-Israel expressions, sometimes at the behest of conservative leaders. 

On the other hand, more than 100 universities have committed to the Chicago Statement on institutional neutrality and free expression. The December congressional testimony of Ivy League presidents over antisemitism demonstrated that campus speech rules meant to preserve civility and a sense of safety aren’t applied uniformly. The disastrous consequences those revelations had for their respective universities’ reputations may inspire more schools to consider institutional neutrality, as well as a more robust commitment to free speech.