An areal photo of the VCU Student Commons plaza with people walking across it.

VCU earns top rating for free speech from FIRE

The university is one of 64 in the country to earn the nonpartisan organization’s ‘green light’ rating, which is reserved for institutions with no written policies that seriously threaten student speech.

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Virginia Commonwealth University is the latest school to receive a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Overall green light ratings are reserved for institutions with no written policies that seriously threaten student speech. VCU is one of five schools in Virginia, and one of 64 nationwide, that earn this rating.

“VCU appreciates the recognition of FIRE’s green light rating for VCU’s support of free speech on campus,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “A university’s role is to create an environment that supports free inquiry and free expression – we learn and grow through being free to examine new and different ideas. Even when we disagree, it’s important to treat other people how all human beings should be treated – with civility, professionalism and respect.”

VCU’s journey to a green light began in 2018 when an administrator asked FIRE, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, how the school could better protect speech. Laura Beltz, director of policy reform for FIRE, met with administrators and identified six “yellow light” policies that imposed vague regulations on expression. The university quickly revised five policies governing dorm room decorations, computer use, student conduct, sexual harassment, and reservation and use of campus spaces. But revisions to VCU’s sex-based misconduct policy required more time, so the school retained its overall yellow light.

This remained the case until last fall, when Beltz reunited with VCU administrators following Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s summit on campus speech. The summit provided administrators with the opportunity to renew discussions with Beltz about revising the sex-based misconduct policy, the final obstacle between VCU and an overall green light. 

VCU’s policy on sex-based misconduct was hardly unique. According to FIRE’s latest Spotlight on Speech Codes report, sexual harassment policies are some of the most likely policies to endanger protected speech. VCU’s old policy included a laundry list of behaviors, such as mocking and name-calling, that the school might have classified — and therefore made punishable — as sexual harassment.

Beltz explained the need for clarification in the sex-based misconduct policy. “A single insult or joke does not qualify as sexual harassment. It has to actually be a part of a pattern of conduct that meets that definition of harassment before being punishable. But that was not made clear under the old policy. For all students knew, they were always one strike away from getting in deep trouble on account of something they said.”

The revised policy includes the same list of conduct but makes it clear that those examples must meet the policy’s definition of harassment to be punishable.

Virginia is now home to five green light institutions: Beyond VCU, the list includes the University of Virginia, George Mason University, the College of William and Mary, and Radford University. The commonwealth now has the third-most green light schools of any state, behind only North Carolina (15) and Mississippi (6).