Report: Four public West Virginia colleges ‘substantially’ restrict free speech

(The Center Square) – Four public West Virginia colleges have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts free speech and every college has some level of free speech restriction, according to a report.

Glenville State College has two policies that fall into the report’s “red light” classification, which means they are policies that both clearly and substantially restrict free speech.

Three other public higher education institutions had one policy that falls into that category – Concord University, Shepherd University and West Liberty University. The four universities also combined to have 27 “yellow light” policies, which are policies that have a more limited restriction on speech or are vaguely worded in a way that could be enforced in a way that restricts speech.

Every other public college or university has at least one “yellow light” policy. All but one private university has at least one “red light” policy, with the exception being Alderson Broaddus University, which still has “yellow light” policies. In total, public and private higher education institutions have 92 policies that restrict free speech. Nearly half of public and private institutions have at least one policy with a red light rating, which is substantially higher than the national average: 18.5%

“Freedom of speech is a core West Virginia value,” Adam Kissel, a senior fellow at the Cardinal Institute, said in a statement. The Cardinal Institute conducted the report with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“But Mountaineers are not always free on our college campuses,” Kissel added.

As an example, the report cites Glenville State College’s sexual harassment policy as being worded in a way that could stifle free speech. The report notes that the college considers offensive name calling, jokes, pictures and objects as sexual harassment when done in any setting. However, the report argues that such actions should only constitute harassment if they were part of a pattern of repeated conduct.

The Center Square reached out to Glenville State College for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

According to the report, Shepherd University includes “hate activities” as a type of banned discrimination. The report states that this includes much speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

Dana Costa, the executive director for university communications at Shepherd University told The Center Square that the institution is dedicated to inclusion, social justice and diversity, but that the policies do not encroach on freedom of speech, as defined by the courts. She said the ban would only apply if the activity was so severe and pervasive that it would deny a student equal access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the university.

West Liberty University prohibits “hate speech” in online communities and “inappropriate online conduct,” according to the report. The report states that what often constitutes hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, which public universities are subject to. It also states that inappropriate conduct is a vague and subjective rule.

WLU President Dr. W. Franklin Evans said in a statement that the university protects free speech and values an inclusive learning environment.

“We review our policies on an ongoing basis and plan to continue to do so, as we foster a campus environment that is based on mutual respect, kindness and academic excellence,” Evans said.

The report did not state Concord University’s specific restrictions, but a spokesperson for the university provided The Center Square with the institution’s position statement on free and open inquiry, which states that the university upholds freedom of expression, but can restrict expression that is “directly incompatible with the functioning of Concord,” such as threats or harassment.

FIRE Director of Policy Reform Laura Beltz said in a statement that unconstitutional speech rules at public universities could risk litigation.

“Speech codes chill free speech on campus,” Beltz said. “Unconstitutional policies harm students and risk costly, embarrassing litigation.”

About 10 years ago, FIRE issued a similar report on North Carolina schools, which found that every college or university had free speech restrictions. Since then, about two-thirds of the institutions changed their policies to the extent that they now receive “green light” ratings from FIRE.