The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its annual report on Dec. 4, 2019 and found that 25% of colleges and universities in the U.S. have policies that put some restrictions on students’ First Amendment rights.
Policies at 471 colleges and universities in the U.S. were analyzed and then ranked on a traffic light scale. A red light ranking represents institutions with policies heavily restricting free speech in some way; a yellow light ranking represents institutions with policies moderately restricting free speech; and a green light ranking represents institutions with policies barely restricting free speech, according to FIRE’s Major Findings web page. Cal Poly Pomona was found to have a yellow light rating in FIRE’s database.
A press release sent on Dec. 11 from FIRE summarized its findings. Apart from the 25% of colleges and universities that have a red light rating, 64% of colleges and universities have a yellow light rating and 11% of colleges and universities have a green light rating.
CPP’s yellow light rating in the database comes from an analysis of seven policies: five yellow light policies and two green light policies. The five yellow light policies at CPP fall under a few categories that broadly refer to student conduct. One of the policies deals with the student code of conduct section on tolerance, respect and civility.
The CPP student code of conduct says, “Students are expected to be good citizens and … to be civil to one another and to others in the campus community.” The FIRE report interprets this policy as being “easily applied to restrict” free speech on campus, according to its press release.
“Free speech is important, but if a student’s safety is at risk then rules need to be in place to prevent that,” said Pasindu Senaratne, CPP Associated Students, Inc. president and fourth-year business student.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants the freedom of expression and includes hate speech as expression. CPP’s policy aiming to prevent bashing and/or hate speech on campus can be seen as a violation of students’ First Amendment rights.
CPP’s two green light policy ratings allow students to protest publicly on campus and ask students to use appropriate criticism and discourse when interacting with those who have differing points of view, FIRE reports. These two policies fall under a presidential order on use of the university grounds.
“The goal is to provide a safe space (on campus) and if someone’s free speech makes someone uncomfortable, that’s not OK,” said Michael Vazquez, a fourth-year political science student.
All 23 of the schools in the California State University system were ranked in the report. None of the universities were given an overall green light ranking; 20 were given a yellow light ranking and three of the universities were given a red light ranking.
FIRE provided a discussion of the results on its website by bringing up the unconstitutionality of policies that prohibit certain speech on college and university campuses.
“Despite the overwhelming weight of legal authority against speech codes, a large number of institutions — including some of those that have been successfully sued on First Amendment grounds — still maintain unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes,” the discussion on FIRE’s website says.
FIRE reported that CPP does allow students to protest on campus while also enacting policies that restrict verbal harassment, a type of expression that is protected by the First Amendment.
During the final weeks of the fall 2019 semester, a protest and march against racial discrimination were held on campus. According to campus policy, and as reflected in the FIRE report, the students that participated in the protest and march were well within their rights to do so. CPP’s administration encouraged and supported this display of free speech.