A change to the Penn State Principles' preamble prompted a bump up in the university's free speech rating from "red light" in 2008 and 2009 to "yellow light" for 2010.
For two years, Penn State has received the red-light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) -- which defends students' speech rights at colleges and universities.
A red-light rating means the university "has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech," according to the FIRE Web site. Yellow-light policies "could be interpreted to suppress protected speech."
In September 2008, Penn State received the Speech Code of the Month from FIRE --
which was tied to its low rating.
Every month, FIRE highlights a speech code at a university that potentially or blatantly restricts free speech, said Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE.
This designation was given because of "constitutional problems" in the preamble to the Penn State Principles regarding the "taunting, ridiculing, [and] insulting" of other students.
But the preamble was changed to include a paragraph that states the principles are written with the hope that students will voluntarily adhere to these principles, and they are not considered university policy.
With that, the university was awarded a yellow light.
The change came after FIRE wrote a letter informing University President Graham Spanier about the potential problem, explaining that prohibiting students from this type of speech is protected by the First Amendment.
"We mail hundreds of letters a year letting [the universities] know their policies are
likely to fail if
taken to court," Creeley said.
Spanier wrote back, defending the principles as "indeed aspirational but decidedly not statements of policy." But Spanier agreed the principles could be taken as university policy and agreed to change the language.
And Penn State is not far from a green-light rating, Creeley said. Some Penn State policies targeted by FIRE are harassment policies and the Tolerance, Respect, and Civility policies.
"The harassment policies are pretty standard," said Robert D. Richards, founding co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment and a Penn State communications professor. "The only problem I can see is with some vague terms in the Tolerance, Respect, and Civility policies. They are terms that are just hard to define."
Creeley said public universities have a legal responsibility to protect speech.
"The speech may be unpleasant, but that is the speech which should be protected from the tyranny of the majority," he said. "More speech is the answer to things we don't like, not less."