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Free speech in US colleges is slightly improving, study suggests, but faces challenges in virtual learning

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While the “speech codes” of most colleges and universities have improved, virtual learning is increasing the threat to free speech in institutions, according to a new report. Since education resumed in the summer, there has been an increase in cases of free speech violations – particularly as much of the learning has moved online.

The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published the annual report on college speech codes. The civil rights organization claimed that there has been a significant increase in cases of free speech violations in the past few months. The organization has reviewed “287 cases of alleged violations of student and faculty rights, while the previous two years saw an average of just 49 cases each June.”

According to FIRE, the increase in cases can be attributed to lockdowns, as Zoom classes rise and the “increase in social justice protests and anti-racism activism on campuses.”

FIRE analyzes the speech codes of US colleges annually. It then assigns each school a rating. Schools with “red-light” ratings have policies that violate free speech. A “yellow light” rating means that the policies are slightly better, while a “green light” rating means the school has policies that do not infringe on the freedom of speech.

In this year’s report, 21 percent of the 372 public institutions and 106 private institutions reviewed had a “red-light” rating. That was an improvement by three percentage points from last year. Additionally, six more schools jumped into the “green light” zone in this year’s report, indicating that free speech policies are improving.

“Though these improvements in policy are heartening, free speech on campus remains under threat,” FIRE wrote in the report.
So, despite the improvements, FIRE insisted that “it is imperative that those who care about free speech on campus stay vigilant.”

In a tweet thread about the report, FIRE said, “88 percent of the 478 US colleges surveyed have policies that restrict free speech.”
“And as Zoom classes replace the quad, half of the surveyed colleges maintain policies that impermissibly restrict online speech – including almost 200 public institutions bound by the First Amendment.”

The report also included examples of cases where schools violated free speech. For example, Fordham University placed a student on probation over “politically incorrect” social media posts about the Tiananmen Square Massacre and a story about the murder of a police officer. When the student sued, the university argued that it reserves the right to limit students’ freedom of expression.

FIRE expressed optimism about the free speech situation by pointing out that restrictive policies in institutions could be revamped if courts rule against them, and students and faculty members fight back.

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