Using FIRE's Spotlight
June 24, 2005
FIRE’s Spotlight allows users to view a complete picture of the the state of liberty—everything from speech codes to actual cases of repression, media coverage, and entries from FIRE’s blog, The Torch
—at specific colleges and universities, or perform more complex searches to find institutions that meet particular criteria.
Finding a College or University
FIRE’s Spotlight provides two ways to find speech codes, media coverage, FIRE cases and commentary, and other information relevant to specific colleges or universities—by browsing or by searching.
Browsing. If you know the institution you wish to find, simply follow these steps:
- Select the state or region from the pull-down menu under the map and click on the “Go” button.
- You will see a listing of all the colleges and universities in that state or region, listed under either “public” or “private.” If the institution you wish to find is listed, click on it. If it is not listed, that means FIRE has not yet researched that institution. Check back at a later date—FIRE’s research is ongoing, and we will constantly add new colleges and universities to the database.
Searching. FIRE’s Spotlight also allows you to perform more advanced searches by categories such as public or private status, geographic region, special mission, or policy type.
- If you wish to perform an advanced search, click on the “Advanced Search” link under the map or on the navigation menu at left.
- This will bring you to the “Advanced Search” page where you can choose to include certain states or geographic regions, public or private institutions, colleges and universities with special missions, or colleges and universities with particular types of policies. When you have set your desired parameters, simply click the “Submit” button.
- On the search results page, the parameters of your search will be displayed at the top with the matching colleges and universities displayed underneath, organized first by state and then by public or private status.
FIRE’s Speech Code Rating System
Next to each listing, and on each page for a particular college or university, you will see a colored traffic light—red, green, or yellow—or the phrase “Not Applicable.” This is FIRE’s Speech Code Rating System, which informs you of FIRE’s opinion of the degree to which free speech is curtailed at a particular institution.
The Speech Code Rating System applies equally to public and most private universities. While private institutions are not directly legally bound to uphold the Constitution, those that promise debate and freedom are morally bound—and may be contractually bound, depending on the circumstances—to uphold the fundamental principles of free speech and of academic freedom, principles that underlie the First Amendment. Therefore from a moral perspective, FIRE makes no distinction between public universities and those private universities that advertise themselves as centers of liberal learning.
Of course, some private institutions—such as religious colleges—have particular missions that they believe require restrictions on speech. When a private university states clearly and consistently that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE does not rate that university. However, FIRE will still record the restrictions on speech at those institutions so that students can have a better understanding of the environment in which they will be educated.
Red Light: A “red light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A “clear” restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression. In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied. A “substantial” restriction on free speech is one that is broadly applicable to important categories of campus expression. For example, a ban on “offensive speech” would be a clear violation (in that it is unambiguous) as well as a substantial violation (in that it covers a great deal of what would be protected expression in the larger society). Such a policy would earn a university a red light.
While a ban on “posters promoting alcohol consumption” would be a clear violation because it unambiguously restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, it would not be a substantial violation because of its very limited scope. Alternatively, a policy banning “verbal abuse” would have broad applicability and would pose a substantial threat to free speech, but it would not be a clear violation because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as threats of violence or harassment as defined in the common law. In other words, the extent of the threat to free speech depends on how such a policy is applied.
A “yellow light” institution has some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech. The colleges and universities that earn yellow lights may have policies that restrict a significant amount of protected expression.
If FIRE is unable to find a policy that seriously imperils speech, a college or university receives a “green light.” A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression. It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.
Interpreting the Policies
When you select an institution, you will be directed to the school page for that college or university. At the very top, you will see the institution’s name, address, and website; the name, email address, and telephone number of the president (or equivalent); the federal appellate circuit where it is found; and the designation attributed to that institution according to FIRE’s Speech Code Rating System. If FIRE has been involved publicly in a case there, you will see a link to FIRE’s statements and press releases. You will also see all relevant posts to FIRE’s weblog, The Torch, and all external media coverage available on FIRE’s website.
Underneath the basic information, you will find that institution’s policies concerning free speech. The policies are grouped according to six categories:
- Mission Statements and Advertised Commitments to Freedom of Speech
- General Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Protected Group Harassment, and Discriminatory Harassment Policies
- Policies on Diversity and Multiculturalism
- Policies on Tolerance, Respect, Sensitivity, Hate, and Hate Speech
- Loyalty Oaths and Honor Codes
- Other Speech Codes
Each category title links to a page that explains in greater detail the issues involved with that category of policy, and the ways in which they can restrict free speech. For more information on these categories, see Speech Codes Issues
Under each category, you will see the policy titles and, under them, any specific excerpts from those policies that—in FIRE’s opinion—either restrict free speech or could be used to restrict free speech. The excerpts range in length from a single sentence to several paragraphs. Under each excerpt is a link to the full policy. Although FIRE rates each institution’s commitment to principles of free speech (based on the moral principles of the Constitution), we invite all visitors to make their own assessments of the speech codes at America’s colleges and universities.