Do California colleges protect free speech?

A study released by a foundation that defends First Amendment rights on campuses found California colleges and universities are doing a better job protecting free speech than campuses in other states. [LA Times]

Nationwide, about 10 percent of college campuses maintain a “free speech zone,” where student demonstrations are restricted to small or out-of-the-way areas on campus, according to a report released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The report found 32 percent of college campuses have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts free speech. Fire gave these colleges “red light” scores in its report.

Only 14 percent of California colleges and universities received “red light” scores. They include several California State University campuses, such as Fresno, Long Beach, and Riverside.

FIRE criticized University of California Riverside for an overly broad definition of sexual harassment. UC Riverside’s Title IX office included offensive jokes and sexually suggestive remarks as examples of harassment in a brochure on sexual violence, according to FIRE. A spokesman for UC Riverside said the university has since revised its policy and eliminated the examples.

Cal Poly received a “yellow light” score, meaning it had at least one policy that could be enforced arbitrarily and could easily be abused. Nationwide, 58 percent of campus received yellow scores.

In its report, FIRE praised Cal Poly for having adopted campus administrative policies declaring that the university has an obligation to tolerate free expression, even if the ideas expressed are unpopular or controversial. FIRE criticized Cal Poly, though, for maintaining anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies, as well as tolerance, respect and civility policies in various rule books governing student behavior on campus and in university housing.

FIRE previously sued Cal Poly and prevailed over university officials who punished a student for posting a flier on a public bulletin announcing a College Republicans-sponsored speech. Cal Poly’s Multicultural Center had deemed the flier offensive.

Earlier this year, Cal Poly allowed controversial conservative speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Lauren Southern to speak at College Republican-sponsored events on campus. The Yiannopoulos event involved a large, costly police presence, but it proceeded peacefully.

The following day, Yiannopoulos’s scheduled speaking engagement at UC Berkeley was canceled, and the event morphed into a riot.  UC Berkeley, too, received a yellow light score in FIRE’s report.

FIRE says lawsuits over free speech restrictions and congressional involvement are pushing universities to improve their protection of free expression.