Education News

2 Houston universities receive ‘red light’ rating for freedom of expression

The study analyzed the written free expression policies of close to 500 colleges and universities. Three Texas schools were ranked harshly and given “red light” status for restrictive speech policies, while most Texas schools earned a “yellow light” rating, which is average.

Rice University Police Department
An aerial view of Rice University. Classes at the school were canceled for one week over coronavirus concerns.

Three Texas universities — including two from Houston — received the harshest, or “red light”, rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE. The national survey issued by the organization was published Tuesday and studies free speech policies at institutions of higher education.

The report included 481 U.S. four-year colleges and universities.

Red light-rated Texas schools

University of Houston, Downtown

Rice University

University of Texas, Dallas

"We disagree with this assessment,” the University of Texas, Dallas said in a statement. “We make every effort to create an environment that supports and encourages free speech while protecting students, faculty and staff from harassment.”

The University of Houston, Downtown said while they have long promoted constructive conversations on campus among students, faculty and staff, they do maintain email and anti-discrimination policies.

“Such policies are in place not to limit freedom of expression or speech but rather to ensure that UHD Community members can continue to work and learn in a safe environment,” the university said in a statement.

Rice University did not respond to a request for comment.

Green light-rated Texas schools

Texas A&M University

What warrants a red light rating?

Laura Beltz, the author of FIRE’s report said red rated schools have "severely restrictive" policies that constitute a serious threat to protected expression. She said the University of Houston, Downtown maintains an IT policy "that students shall not send messages or make postings that could be construed as offensive. That could include anything from a rude tweet about a sports theme or an off-color joke. And that’s protected speech."

FIRE said 86% of colleges restrict free speech in some capacity.

Middle of the pack

Beltz said 16 Texas schools, like Texas State University, scored a yellow rating, which is average. She said Texas State for example, prohibits information resource use for political purposes because the state school itself cannot legally advocate for politicians. But she said, students can.

"So we flag this one," explained Beltz, "because students could read this and think, oh, I’m not allowed to engage in any political expression over the university’s IT resources, and that’s just not the case."

The lone green light

Beltz said that among the rated Texas colleges, only Texas A&M earned a green light rating, meaning the school doesn't maintain any policies that compromise student expression. Only 12% of FIRE's rated schools, 58 nationwide, scored a green light.

This story originally appeared on KERA News, and is made possible through the generosity of its members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

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