The General Assembly will discuss university speech codes later this session.
On Jan. 4, Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, prefiled HB 344, a bill that would require public universities to establish and include free speech policies in its student handbook, student orientation programs and on its website.
Landes, who chairs the House Education Committee, said public universities are not required to post their free speech policies under current Virginia law.
The legislation serves to ensure the policies are “available and obvious to folks,” he said. The bill also would require universities to develop training programs on the free speech policies for “any employee who is responsible for the discipline or education of enrolled students,” according to the bill.
Each university would also have to provide an annual report that details any barriers to or disruption of free speech on campus, attempts to block or prohibit campus speakers, investigations of students or student organizations for their speech and any disciplinary action taken against anyone who barred or disrupted free speech, according to the bill.
Virginia has not had many campus free speech problems, Landes said, but it is becoming more of an issue.
Nationally, the percentage of universities with policies that severely restrict students’ free speech has decreased, a trend that has continued the last 10 years, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is an organization that defends individual rights on college campuses across the nation.
The organization evaluates colleges and universities policies annually to ensure they do not infringe on campus free speech, assigning each school a rating: green light, yellow light and red light.
Green light schools do not have any policies that infringe on individual rights. Yellow light schools have at least one policy ambiguous policy and red light schools have at least one policy that clearly violates individual rights on campus.
According to FIRE’s Dec. 19 report, about 32 percent of universities across the nation received a red light rating this year, which is seven percentage points lower than last year. About 59 percent have a yellow light ratings. Another 37 institutions earned a green light rating.
Out of 16 Virginia universities rated, only George Mason University, The College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia have green light ratings. Eleven have yellow light ratings and two have red light ratings.
James Madison University falls in the majority category with a yellow light rating, getting docked by FIRE for several policies. In 2011, JMU was a green light school.
According to FIRE’s website, JMU added several speech codes that violated individual rights. After sending several letters to the university, FIRE gave JMU a yellow light rating in 2014.
Contact Ellie Potter at 574-6286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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