How protected is free speech at University of Maine System schools?


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 of colleges and universities 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 within the University of Maine System?

The University of Maine System (UMS) is the primary network of public post-secondary institutions in the State of Maine and consists of seven schools (excluding the University of Maine School of Law): the University of Maine (UMaine), the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK), the University of Maine at Machias (UMM), the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI), and the University of Southern Maine (USM).

Four of these schools (UMaine, UMFK, UMPI, and USM) have received a “yellow light” rating from FIRE for enforcing rules that “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of vague wording, could to easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

According to FIRE, the University of Maine System’s Board of Trustees adopted the Chicago Statement in 2017. However, some of their schools’ policies do not align with the intent and principles set forth in the statement.

University of Maine

Bias Response Team

UMaine has created a Bias Response Team charged with reviewing bias-related incidents, reaching out to those impacted, and pursuing potential investigations through the University Police Department or by filing a complaint with the Office of Community Standards, Rights and Responsibilities. The university “considers acts of hate and bias unacceptable and antithetical to its commitment to an inclusive and respectful community.” It is unclear how the terms “hate” and “bias” are defined, and what behaviors might trigger the involvement of the Bias Response Team. This uncertainty may make students reluctant to voice unpopular opinions for fear of expressing perceived “hate” or “bias.”

While acts of hate and bias must be condemned by the public, it is not the university’s role to police this type of speech. Because UMaine is a public institution, it must provide an equal platform for all kinds of speech on its campuses, regardless of content or bias.

An exhaustive list of the flaws within the UMaine’s speech-related policies can be found here.

University of Southern Maine

Use of Banners, Flyers and Posters

USM maintains that all flyers posted in residence halls on their campuses need to be stamped by the Student Life office. In addition, the flyers are not allowed to have “references to the use, sale, or consumption of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or illegal drugs.”

Information Resources

USM’s policy on information resources states that inappropriate use of the system can include “intentionally and unnecessarily exposing others to material they may find personally unsuitable.”

An exhaustive list of the flaws within the USM’s speech-related policies can be found here.

University of Maine at Fort Kent

Solicitation Policy

On-campus organizations at UMFK are prohibited from advertising posters that have hate speech or speech that incites hate or violence. Off-campus organizations or individuals who “have a history of hate speech, violence, suppression or discrimination against any individual or group will be prohibited from utilizing campus facilities.”


According to another policy, all signs, notices and posters are required to be approved by the Student Affairs Office and can only be placed on bulletin boards on campus. Any posters that do not follow the university’s policies are removed by Student Affairs personnel. In addition, “certain activities may not be advertised on campus.”

An exhaustive list of the flaws within UMFK’s speech-related policies can be found here.

University of Maine at Presque Isle

Free Speech and Assembly Policy

The Free Speech and Assembly policy at UMPI allows the campus to regulate speech. The policy allows the school to create designated areas for students to conduct expressive activities “under certain circumstances.” In addition, a permit from the Coordinator of Safety and Security may be required to engage in expressive activities. Further, the request to use an outdoor area of campus must be made at least three days in advance.

An exhaustive list of the flaws within UMFK’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 calls on these schools to patch the holes within their student conduct codes that have been exposed by FIRE. Individuals associated with UMaine, USM, UMFK and UMPI can also visit FIRE’s website to take action.