FIRE’s ‘Test for Free Speech’
July 16, 2008
In a recent entry on his blog Flow of Ideas, Colorado College President Dick Celeste writes of FIRE:
An interesting note: In 2007, FIRE reviewed 346 colleges and universities, and fully 96 percent of them did not pass its test for free speech (only 2% passed; 2% were unrated).
Celeste arrives at this figure by combining the number of schools that received either a "red light" or a "yellow light" rating in FIRE's 2007 report Spotlight on Speech Codes 2007: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses. By FIRE's definition, "red light" schools maintain policies that both clearly and substantially restrict free speech; "yellow light" schools, by contrast, maintain policies that, while not necessarily facially unconstitutional, are ripe for abuse by administrations eager to censor protected speech―administrations like, say, the one at Colorado College! A good way to think of the distinction is that at red-light schools, free speech is explicitly restricted; at yellow-light schools, it is only threatened, but often seriously so.
So when referring to the percentage of schools that, in FIRE's estimation, actively prohibit protected speech, the accurate figure to use is the percentage of red-light institutions: 75 percent.
Celeste's tone also clearly implies that he believes the high number of schools rated poorly for free speech has more to do with FIRE's methods or judgment than with the simple fact that universities today are hotbeds of censorship. He suggests that the high number of poorly rated institutions somehow discredits FIRE, rather than discrediting the institutions themselves. But FIRE's "test" doesn't rely on some arbitrary appraisal of a policy; rather, we examine the policy in light of the clear jurisprudential standards established by the Supreme Court and the Department of Education. Besides, Celeste's implied aspersions are ironic, coming from a man whose own institution shamelessly censored students for engaging in protected satire, an act that would have been wholly unconstitutional at any of Colorado's public colleges or universities.
Finally, it is important to note that FIRE has no "test for free speech" beyond the "test" laid out by the First Amendment, which requires that government institutions "shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."
Given President Celeste's obvious disregard for free speech, it is no surprise that Colorado College both receives a red-light rating and is one of only five schools on FIRE's Red Alert List.