How protected is free speech at Bates College?


The current state of freedom of speech and expression on college campuses is broken. Increasingly, America’s colleges and universities have retreated from their historical position as bastions of free speech to become some of the most insular and least tolerant institutions in our society.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan group dedicated to defending college students’ constitutional rights, roughly 9 in 10 American colleges restrict free speech on campus. Of the institutions studied, 28.5 percent received a “red light” rating from FIRE, meaning their policies “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.

The erosion of free speech is becoming more acceptable with each new generation. A Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of millennials, the primary population on college campuses, believe the government should be able to prevent individuals from making offensive statements in public, while 58 percent believed it should not be prevented. In contrast, only 12 percent of the Silent Generation, 24 percent of Baby Boomers and 27 percent of Generation X believed such speech should be prevented by the government.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Even when explicit policies don’t prevent students from exercising their free speech rights, campuses often nurture an environment in which new or controversial ideas are unwelcome and discouraged. By empowering government education officials to silence speech, no matter its perception, we erode our founding principles and stifle the discussions that allow our society to grow and prosper. If education is the vehicle of human progress, academic freedom and open inquiry must be its twin engines.

What needs to be fixed at Bates College?

Since they operate without direct government control, private institutions are subject to some different legal standards on free speech than public universities. Despite this, many of these institutions brand themselves as friendly to the First Amendment. Some of Maine’s private institutions of higher learning, like Bates College, have received “red light” ratings from FIRE for maintaining policies that explicitly limit students’ freedom of expression.

FIRE gives Bates College a “red light” rating because of two specific policies on campus. First, the college’s policy on harassment, intimidation or bullying is overly broad. According to the policy, acts of intimidation, stalking, confrontation, verbal slurs, insults or taunts, physical force or threat of physical force made with the intention of causing fear, intimidation, ridicule, humiliation, disparagement, disruption to the educational environment, or damage to property can result in students being removed from campus.

Verbal insults are distinct from property damage, threats or acts of force and truly violent behavior because they do not preempt the rights of others to express themselves freely. In other words, speech is not violence. Freedom of speech and expression includes students’ rights to insult others as long as it does not constitute a threat of violence.

Being punished by the college’s Office of Student Support & Community Standards and/or the Student Conduct Committee for making verbal insults is the antithesis of free speech. While nobody advocates for making disparaging remarks in public, it is unacceptable for students to face penalties for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.

Another policy held by the institution that violates students’ First Amendment rights is the Bias Incidents and Hate Crimes policy. A bias incident can be reported and resolved through informal and formal means. According to Bates, a bias incident is: 

Any event of intolerance or prejudice, not involving violence or other criminal conduct, intended to threaten, offend or intimidate another because of the other’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or physical or mental disability. Examples of bias incidents include hate speech, gay bashing, racist epithets, religious slurs, sexist jokes or cartoons, hate mail, offensive graffiti, or disparaging remarks on social media sites. Such incidents create a socially divisive atmosphere for members of the community targeted and negatively affect the campus climate.

While these incidents should certainly be condemned by the public, the college itself should not interfere with speech, even if it is biased or offensive. An exhaustive list of the flaws within Bates College’s speech-related policies can be found here.

The Solution

To foster an educational environment most conducive to free expression, student groups, including student government organizations, should take action to push school administrators to revise these policies. This can include hosting free speech-focused events on campus or advancing a resolution within student government that adopts the University of Chicago statement or calls on the school to patch the holes within its student conduct code that have been exposed by FIRE. Individuals associated with the institution can also visit FIRE’s website to take action.