Higher Education

Ray Carter | December 4, 2019

Oklahoma colleges given low rating in free-speech report

Ray Carter

A new report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) finds that three major Oklahoma colleges maintain highly restrictive speech codes, and two others maintain policies that are less restrictive but still impose some barriers to free speech.

The FIRE report reviewed the speech policies of 471 colleges and universities nationwide and ranked schools into three main groups. Schools given a “red light” rating were those that maintain “at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.”

Three Oklahoma colleges were given red-light ratings:  Oklahoma State University, the University of Central Oklahoma, and the University of Tulsa.

“Despite the overwhelming weight of legal authority against speech codes, a large number of institutions—including some of those that have been successfully sued on First Amendment grounds—still maintain unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes.” —Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

Schools given a “yellow light” rating have policies “that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.”

Two Oklahoma colleges were given a yellow-light rating: the University of Oklahoma and Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

Schools given a “green light” rating have policies that “do not seriously threaten campus expression.” However, the report states that 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.” (Emphasis in original.)

No Oklahoma school was given a green-light rating.

The rating for all five Oklahoma schools was unchanged from FIRE’s 2018 report.

In response to a request for comment, the University of Oklahoma released a brief statement on FIRE's rating.

"The University of Oklahoma is committed to its work in preventing hate speech and mitigating harmful effects on members of the OU community when instances occur," the statement said. "OU also continues to abide by its legal obligation under the First Amendment to protect the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression."

Oklahoma State University did not respond to a similar request for comment. 

In a release, FIRE senior program officer Laura Beltz, lead author of the study, said some schools have shifted from policies that blatantly impose dubious free-speech restrictions to policies that achieve similar outcomes in less obvious ways.

“Many college administrators are scrubbing the most egregious policies from the books, but they’re increasingly crafting subtler policies that still limit student expression,” Beltz said. “Yellow light policies aren’t good enough — they still restrict protected speech. Colleges must go green or go back to the drawing board.”

Of the 471 schools reviewed by FIRE, 24.2 percent received a red-light rating, 63.9 percent received a yellow-light rating, and just 10.6 percent received a green-light rating.

However, FIRE reports that this is the 12th year in a row the percentage of universities with a red-light rating has declined. Since 2009, the number of red-light institutions has declined by 50 percentage points.

The FIRE report cites Arizona as a leader in campus free speech. Arizona is currently the only state in the country where all four-year public universities now receive a green-light rating.

Mississippi was highlighted as another free-speech success story. That state boasts five universities that have been received the green-light designation when it comes to students’ free-speech rights: the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Alcorn State University, Delta State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi.

The report did praise Oklahoma for being one of 17 states that have passed laws “to prohibit public colleges and universities from maintaining free speech zones” that limit students’ speech activities to specific locations.

Under Senate Bill 361, which passed this year, “Any person who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity on campus shall be permitted to do so freely, as long as the person’s conduct is not unlawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institutions of higher education …”

The new law bars the creation of “free speech zones” and requires Oklahoma colleges to treat outdoor areas of the campus as “public forums,” subject to “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions narrowly tailored in service of a significant institutional interest.” The law requires that when restrictions are imposed by college administrators, those restrictions must “employ clear, published, content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria and provide for ample alternative means of expression.”

SB 361 passed the Oklahoma Senate 36-9 and the Oklahoma House of Representatives 73-26. The vote broke down largely along party lines with most Republicans in support and most Democrats opposed.

The FIRE report notes campus speech codes often prohibit expression “that would be constitutionally protected in society at large.”

“Despite the overwhelming weight of legal authority against speech codes, a large number of institutions—including some of those that have been successfully sued on First Amendment grounds—still maintain unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes,” the report states.

Among problematic campus-speech policies highlighted by FIRE are those related to “bias” reporting. Fire notes that “Bias Reporting Protocols” or “Bias Incident Protocols” often “include bans on protected expression” and can “infringe on students’ right to due process, allowing for anonymous reporting that denies students the right to confront their accusers.”

The University of Oklahoma’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion has a Bias Response Committee whose purpose is “to evaluate and deliberate on bias and discrimination reports” that are received through a hotline.

On August 29, 2018, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs filed a request with the OU Open Records Office seeking specific information about complaints lodged with the university’s bias reporting hotline. The request sought details on each case, with personally identifying information excised. Under Oklahoma law, the documents are public records. To date, no information has been provided.

Note: This story has been updated to include a comment from the University of Oklahoma.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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