Think tank releases annual campus free speech ratings. See how North Carolina schools stacked up

North Carolina had more ‘green light’ ratings than any other state

Images of the N.C. State Belltower, UNC Chapel Hill Old Well, Wake Forest Wait Chapel and Duke University Chapel via AP/Public Domain.

RALEIGH — Free speech on college campuses saw improvement for the 13th year in a row, according to a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.

FIRE’s 2021 Spotlight on Free Speech report says that the number of schools earning an overall “red light” rating has dropped three points over the previous year to 21.3%. That’s a 50-point drop since FIRE began publishing the Spotlight report in 2009.

Schools rated by FIRE in North Carolina received more green light ratings than any other state.

FIRE reviewed 478 schools, both public and private, and 27 schools improved their overall ratings this year. According to this year’s findings, nearly the same number of public schools earned a green-light rating (52) as those that earned a red-light rating (54).

FIRE’s definition of their Red, Yellow and Green ratings are as follows:

Red Light: A red light institution maintains at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.

Yellow Light: A yellow light institution maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.

Green Light: If FIRE finds that a university’s policies do not seriously threaten campus expression, that college or university receives a green light rating. A green light rating does not necessarily indicate that a school actively supports free expression in practice; it simply means that the school’s written policies do not pose a serious threat to free speech.

There is also a “warning” rating, which FIRE assigns mainly to private universities and colleges which have their own priorities and right to freedom of association. FIRE uses such a rating to warn potential faculty, staff and students of that fact.

Key Report Findings:

  • 102 (21.3%) received a red-light rating.
  • 312 (65.3%) schools received a yellow-light rating.
  • 56 (11.7%) received a green-light rating.
  • Eight (1.7%) earned a Warning rating.

The report also states that 7.1% of institutions surveyed maintain “free speech zone” policies, which FIRE says may “limit student demonstrations and other expressive activities to small and/or out-of-the-way areas on campus.” This number has dropped by nearly half since 2013. FIRE credits the change in part to its own litigation and legislative efforts.

Two North Carolina schools in the report listed as having “free speech zones” are the UNC School of the Arts and Elizabeth City State University.

Of the 372 public universities FIRE reviewed, 54 received a red-light rating (14.5%), 264 received a yellow-light rating (71%), and 52 received a green-light rating (14%). The report says the percentage of public schools with a red-light rating dropped from 18.3% last year to 14.5% this year.

There were 106 private colleges and universities reviewed in the report. The breakdown includes 47 (44.3%) receiving a red-light rating, 49 (46.2%) earning a yellow-light rating and four (3.8%) receiving a green light. Additionally, six schools earned a Warning rating (5.7%).

A number of schools in North Carolina were included in FIRE’s report this year, and all but one institution maintained the same rating they were given in the prior year’s report.

Schools earning a green light again this year include Appalachian State University, Duke University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University, North Carolina Central University, N.C. State, Western Carolina University, and UNC System schools at Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Greensboro, Pembroke and Wilmington.

Yellow-light ratings remained unchanged for Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina A&T State University, Wake Forest University, UNC Asheville and UNC School of the Arts.

Winston-Salem State University and Davidson College are the only two institutions that received a red-light rating in the current report. Davidson had a red light in FIRE’s report in 2020, but Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) had been issued a yellow light.

North State Journal reached out to Davidson College and Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) for comment about their ratings. Despite several attempts, Davidson College did not respond to our requests; however, Winston-Salem University did offer a statement.

“Winston-Salem State University highly values our student’s right to freedom of speech and by no means intend to restrict that,” WSSU’s director of Communications and Media Relations Haley Gingles wrote in an email response.

“The language FIRE has tagged as ‘red light’ was found in a previous version of the Undergraduate Catalog. The current Catalog (the 2020-2021 Supplemental Undergraduate Catalog) does not contain the red-light language,” wrote Gingles. “The section regarding ‘Policies and Regulations Governing Student Life’ is replaced with a general reference to the Student Handbook.” 

Gingles said that the WSSU Student Handbook is a “critical guide for student behavior, and it reflects the university’s desire and support for students to express themselves freely.”

“While the university hopes FIRE would change WSSU’s rating based on the use of outdated documents, we have no control over FIRE’s processes or criteria,” Gingles said.

North State Journal reached out to FIRE with Gingles remarks and received a response from Laura Beltz, senior program officer for FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program.

“We were happy to hear this language was removed since that update in 2019, and have updated WSSU’s rating on our website accordingly,” said Beltz. “Indeed, WSSU removed its only ‘red light’ policy, and improved to an overall ‘yellow light’ rating. We will be pleased to note this rating change in next year’s report, and commend the university for taking this substantial step forward for free speech!”

Beltz said that FIRE updates the ratings for each of the schools in our database annually on a rolling basis and that for this past December’s report, FIRE started updating schools on Oct. 1, 2019, and drafted the report in October 2020. She said that as part of that process, WSSU’s rating was updated in November 2019, and the “red-light” policy language appeared on WSSU’s website at that time, so WSSU was listed as an overall “red light” school in December’s report.

“Remaining speech codes we have flagged at WSSU include harassment policies that do not track the Supreme Court’s speech-protective standard for hostile environment harassment and an assembly policy that requires students to obtain a permit 3 days in advance, thereby preventing spontaneous expressive activism,” Beltz said. “We look forward to the opportunity to work with the university to improve these remaining speech codes!”

About A.P. Dillon 650 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_