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More Colleges Adopting Chicago Principles for Free Speech

The increased prevalence of online instruction at colleges across the country and heightened student activism for racial justice during summer 2020 resulted in a record number of student and faculty members who complained their free expression rights were being violated, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which published a new report today.

FIRE, a campus civil liberties advocacy organization, reviewed 287 complaints in June of alleged violations at colleges and universities nationwide, which was significantly more than previous summers. FIRE reviewed just 49 cases in 2018 and 2019, the report said. The report is FIRE’s annual “Spotlight on Speech Codes,” which reviewed 478 colleges’ written free speech policies and graded them based on whether they restrict protected campus expression. FIRE reviewed the policies of 372 four-year public institutions and 106 private institutions, according to the report.

FIRE reports that 78 institutions or faculty representative bodies have now endorsed or adopted the Chicago principles, which are standards for campus free expression developed by a Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2015. The principles state that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Eight more institutions or their faculty groups have promoted the principles since last year, the FIRE report states. The principles are endorsed by FIRE and seen by some as the gold standard for protecting free speech on campus, while critics have noted that they are a “one size fits all” and ineffective approach to campus expression and neglect inclusion and equity goals.

Over all, about 21 percent of the institutions surveyed this year by FIRE were given a “red light” rating, which means that they maintain a written policy that “clearly and substantially restricts protected speech,” the report said. Red light policies could include “ambiguous” bans on “offense speech,” according to the report. The number of red light colleges is down three percentage points from last year, when about 24 percent of colleges received the rating, the report said.

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