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### Ranking of Tennessee Universities Based on Free Speech Policies in a Recent Report

For the third consecutive year, only one public university in Tennessee was deemed supportive of students’ First Amendment rights, while another was categorized as “restrictive” in an annual evaluation of free speech policies on campuses nationwide.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville received a “green” rating, indicating the absence of any regulations that restrict students’ freedom of speech. It stood out as the sole Tennessee institution in the survey to achieve this favorable rating.

On the other hand, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Sewanee, University of the South, Tennessee Technological University, University of Memphis, and Vanderbilt University all received a “yellow” rating, suggesting the presence of somewhat ambiguous restrictions on speech and expression. Meanwhile, Tennessee State University (TSU) was labeled as “red” due to its stringent policies that significantly curtailed students’ free speech rights.

Recent violations highlighted in the report included two specific policies concerning demonstrations and disciplinary actions, as outlined by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Mary Griffin, a senior program officer at FIRE, pointed out the concerning policies at TSU. She emphasized the restrictive nature of their demonstration policy, which mandates the registration of all demonstrations—deemed a severe infringement on First Amendment rights. Additionally, the university’s harassment policy lacked clear standards for disciplinary measures, allowing for punishment even in the absence of substantial evidence supporting allegations of misconduct, thus potentially stifling protected forms of expression.

Despite attempts to solicit a response from TSU regarding the ranking, no comments were provided at the time of reporting.

The annual assessments, initiated in 2006, focus exclusively on a school’s stance on free speech policies. Griffin explained that the evaluations, encompassing 489 institutions between January and early October 2023, are guided by established First Amendment case law, particularly Supreme Court precedents.

While the distribution of schools across the rating categories has remained relatively consistent nationwide, Griffin anticipates potential shifts in rankings in the upcoming year. She attributed this projection to the recent campus unrest related to global conflicts, such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, and the impending presidential election, which may prompt revisions to existing free speech policies.

Griffin underscored the importance of upholding free speech principles while addressing issues like harassment and threats on campus, emphasizing the need for universities to balance maintaining a safe environment with safeguarding students’ rights to express themselves freely.

The coverage of First Amendment issues by the USA Today Network – Tennessee is made possible through a collaboration between the Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners.

For story submissions or inquiries, Angele Latham can be reached via email at [email protected], by phone at 931-623-9485, or followed on Twitter at @angele_latham.