In the wake of three presidents’ Congressional hearing on antisemitism last month, the umbrella of what constitutes free speech is facing higher scrutiny, and the parameters of what colleges allow are facing review. An analysis by a First Amendment watchdog group provides more concrete evidence of higher education’s growing conservatism.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) analyzed the speech codes of nearly 500 of America’s top colleges and universities and found that nearly nine in 10 have at least one policy restricting free speech.
“This is not an anomaly: Free speech in higher education is getting worse,” said Laura Beltz, director of policy reform at FIRE. “America’s top colleges are increasingly turning to censorship and terrible policies to police their students’ ability to speak freely.”
Colleges were given either a green, yellow or red light rate depending on how severely school policies restrict freedom of speech. In the 15 years that FIRE has created this annual report, 2023 and 2024 were the first years that the total red light ratings went up. Institutions received this poor rating if they had at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.
One in five institutions (98) received the red light rating. Two-thirds received a yellow light rating for possessing vaguely worded policies that could restrict or narrow forms of speech. Private schools were significantly likelier to earn a red or yellow light rating.
“Many schools maintain overbroad or vague policies on misconduct like true threats, incitement to violence, and harassment,” said Beltz. “Schools must ensure those policies track First Amendment standards and enforce them consistently.”
FIRE remarks on the significance of this report at a time when institutions are announcing they are reviewing their free speech policies to ensure students are physically protected. Higher education camps and K12 school districts are among the most likely locations for an individual to report a hate crime, according to the FBI.
Schools were judged by their written guidelines rather than the campus climate around free speech. The watchdog argues that even the most harmless codes can be abused and weaponized if the language is vague enough.
For example, what constitutes “harassment” on campus is sometimes interpreted by college policies to extend beyond the legal definition, allowing administrators to target protected free speech, FIRE argues. In 2020, Stockton University (N.J.) administrators accused a student of harassment, cyberbullying and discrimination for using a picture of Donald Trump as his Zoom background. In 2022, American University (D.C.) launched an investigation into eight students for potentially harassing conservatives who felt offended by their questioning of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“Rather than eroding free speech protections during times of crisis, schools must strengthen their policies and apply them evenhandedly—and regardless of the political viewpoint at hand,” said Beltz.