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TTU, MTSU Among TN Colleges Earning Mediocre Marks for Free Speech Protections

A national organization that tracks efforts on higher education campuses to suppress the exercise of free speech has declared that Tennessee is, on whole, basically average when it comes to universities respecting First Amendment liberties.

Given the disquieting level of intolerance for controversial opinions and divergent points of view at American colleges these days, that isn’t all that great.

“The vast majority of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus,” according to a press release this week from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. “In Tennessee, 88 percent of institutions restrict some amount of free speech.”

FIRE recently published a nationwide study titled, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.”

In the report, the Philadelphia-based group surveyed written policies pertaining to protections and restrictions on free speech at both public and private universities. The FIRE researchers concluded that nearly 90 percent of the schools they examined “maintain policies that restrict — or too easily could restrict — student and faculty expression.”

“Colleges should be a place for open debate and intellectual inquiry, but today, almost all colleges silence expression through policies that are often illiberal and, at public institutions, unconstitutional,” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s lead author of the study.

FIRE uses a three-tiered system of rating individual schools that applies “red light,” “yellow light” or “green light” designations. A “red light” means an institution maintains “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” A “yellow” rating means the school enforces policies that “by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” A “green light” signifies that “a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech.”

“A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression,” the report notes. “It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

Both Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Tech University received yellow ratings.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville earned a green light, making it “one of just two SEC East universities to earn FIRE’s highest rating for speech.”

Of the eight Tennessee schools FIRE rated, only Tennessee State University was hit with a red light grade.

All in all, the FIRE report’s authors say there is actually some room for optimism in the report — despite the continuing reality that “far too many colleges across the country fail to live up to their free speech obligations in policy and in practice.”

For the eleventh year in a row, the share of schools earning a red light has gone down. Last year it was above 32 percent, this year it is 28.5.

“In further good news, more and more colleges and universities continue to adopt policy statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015,” the report’s executive summary observes. “As of this writing, 50 schools or faculty bodies have endorsed a version of the free speech policy statement known as the ‘Chicago Statement,’ with 14 adoptions in 2018 alone.”

During Tennessee’s 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure called the “Campus Free Speech Protection Act.” That legislation directed public institutions across the Volunteer State to establish policies that “embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty.”

In a press release issued after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed the act into law, FIRE described it as containing “some of the country’s strongest protections for student and faculty speech on public college campuses.”