Colleges with restrictive speech codes are like underwear that shrank in the wash: you won’t always know what’s wrong until you’re in them and getting squeezed.
For over a decade, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been fighting the former problem. (For the latter problem, wash in cold water and tumble dry on low heat.)
While FIRE can give you a better summary of their history than I can, here’s a short version: well-intentioned people with bigger hearts than brains sometimes try to sanitize the college campus of ideas that could cause offense. They do so by enacting speech codes–rules about what you can say, or can’t say, on a college campus.
These people want everyone to get along, which would be a laudable goal, except historically speaking, the list of people who refused to “get along” included George Washington, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. As the entire concept of the American “marketplace of ideas” that is our constitutional heritage protects our right not to get the hell along, dissenters from every star in the political constellation need help in opposing speech codes. FIRE is at the vanguard of that fight.
FIRE also compiles an annual progress report, and today they’ve released the 2012 edition, “Spotlight on Speech Codes.” Among the facts it contains:
- Of 392 schools surveyed, 65% maintain severely restrictive speech codes worthy of a “red light” rating (meaning, stop and think seriously before you risk enrolling there).
- The percentage of schools with red light speech codes has declined for the fourth year in a row, down from 75% four years ago.
- The best state for free speech in higher education was Virginia, where only 28.5% of the schools surveyed received a red light and 43% received a green light.
The SPLC’s offices are in Virginia, and while it’s possible that’s a coincidence, I’d like to think it’s also possible that colleges are on their best behavior when I’m around. I need to make a “scare-dean” out of my old jeans and shirts stuffed with straw for when I visit other parts of the country. Then when someone asks a dean of students of a Virginia school to censor, he or she will peek out from the blinds and see my scare-dean in the parking lot and say, “I’m committed to free speech. For now.” Of course, it’s also possible it has something to do with the high quality of Virginia schools and a better understanding of the importance of dissent to our system of government.
Either way, it looks like FIRE is improving the climate for speech in colleges, making them an ally to the SPLC and to students everywhere.