The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gave Penn State’s current policies a “yellow light” rating for 2011, meaning that some could “ban or excessively regulate protected speech,” according to FIRE’s website.
Penn State also received a “yellow light” rating from FIRE in 2010, an improvement from the “red light” ratings it received from the organization in 2008 and 2009.
And as it stands, Penn State is close to achieving a “green light” status because only two of the examined speech policies were given a “yellow light” rating, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris said.
FIRE — a nonprofit organization based out of Philadelphia — works to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to its website.
Penn State’s Sanctioning Guidelines for Community Standards and its Use of Outdoor Areas for Expressive Activities policy were the two policies receiving a “yellow light” from FIRE.
“The Community Standards policy’s definition of harassment dramatically differs from the legal definition of the term, so it can be easily misinterpreted,” Harris said.
Despite FIRE’s rating, Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said the organization’s judgment of the quality of the university’s speech policies doesn’t affect the reputation and quality of education provided by the school.
“The rating doesn’t determine how welcoming and safe the campus is,” she said. “These policies are just guidelines to promote character and responsibility which are the goals of the university.”
Harris said earning a green light rating for the upcoming year can be easily achieved by reforming the highlighted policies. She doesn’t doubt Penn State’s ability to earn a green light rating this year.
“In the past the organization has written to the university about unconstitutional speech codes and Penn State has been very responsive and made important changes,” she said.
Mountz said the organization’s ratings make universities seem like they’re squelching free speech, though free speech is actually “adamantly protected.”
“Overall, the university stresses reasonable guidelines that anyone would want to follow to promote respect and responsibility, which is what Penn State strives for,” Mountz said.
According to the organization’s website, FIRE’s core mission is “to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.”
Out of the 390 schools reviewed by FIRE in the past year, 261 received a red light rating, 107 received a yellow light rating and 12 received a green light rating.