FIRE is pleased to announce that this week, Arizona State University (ASU) eliminated its unconstitutional speech code, earning it a coveted “green light” rating. ASU, with a total enrollment of more than 60,000 students, is the largest university to have a “green light” rating.
Greg said in today’s press release, “Arizona State University should be commended for making this simple but important change to guarantee the First Amendment rights of its students. We hope that more colleges will follow its example and reform their codes to protect free speech.”
FIRE first contacted ASU in September 2010 about its “Advertising and Posting” policy for student organizations, which at the time provided that all campus postings “must make reasonable effort to avoid demeaning, sexual or discriminatory portrayal of individuals or groups.” FIRE’s letter pointed out that the policy, while well-intentioned, constituted an “impermissible viewpoint-based restriction that limits student organizations’ ability to advertise potentially controversial events,” and that student groups taking unpopular views on controversial issues could easily run afoul of the policy.
In January, ASU General Counsel José Cárdenas notified FIRE that ASU would be revising the policy in light of FIRE’s concerns. The new policy, instead of stating that advertising must not include certain types of controversial expression, provides that campus postings “should be consistent with ASU’s policy of discouraging demeaning, sexual or discriminatory portrayal of individuals or groups.” (Emphasis added.) Cárdenas assured FIRE that the language change reflects the policy’s aspirational nature and that students would not be punished under the policy for constitutionally protected expression.
Why is this important? Universities are free to encourage students not to (for example) “demean” one another. One reason they are not free to require this limit on expression, however, is that there is and can be no universal agreement on what is demeaning. Because of this, the government, in our free society, is not permitted to determine what is demeaning and seek to punish it. Political campaigns, for instance, are often marked by expression on both sides that seeks to mock, demean, and otherwise undermine the credibility of their opponents. While perhaps unpleasant, such expression is a feature of democratic discourse in an open society, and state universities are not free to suppress it.
Although only 14 schools have a “green light” rating, the list has grown in recent years. Both the University of Virginia and the The College of William & Mary recently eliminated their speech codes to earn green lights.
The other 11 “green light” colleges and universities in FIRE’s Spotlight database are University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Cleveland State University, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Bucks County Community College, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, Black Hills State University, University of South Dakota, University of Tennessee – Knoxville, and University of Utah.
Now that Arizona State has “gone green,” FIRE is turning its attention to the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, both of which have “red light” policies that clearly and substantially restrict students’ freedom of speech. Let’s hope they’re willing to learn from Arizona State’s excellent example.
Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights.