Three private Minnesota colleges have been flagged by a civil liberties group for having policies the group considers among the most restrictive on students' free speech.

St. Olaf College, Macalester College and Carleton College all were given "red light" ratings by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that this week released a report analyzing written policies at 471 colleges and universities across the country. The report then gave green, yellow or red light ratings based on how the policies could limit student expression.

In Minnesota higher education institutions, as in those from across the nation, the primary issue is overly broad policies, said Laura Beltz, lead author of the report.

St. Olaf, Macalester and Carleton received the red light designation for sections of their student handbooks concerning internet usage and harassment policies.

Macalester officials were not immediately available for comment. Messages left with Carleton and St. Olaf officials were not returned Wednesday.

Policies with subjective or sweeping terminology — such as prohibiting offensive or demeaning material — present two problems, Beltz said: Administrators can use a broad policy to restrict speech that is protected under the First Amendment, and students may read such policies and shy away from participating in or posting something they fear is controversial.

"That can have a chilling effect," Beltz said.

FIRE has released similar reports since 2006 and has seen the percentage of schools earning a red light decrease each year for the past 12 years. This year, about one-fourth of the schools received the rating. Of the private colleges included in the report, nearly 45% received a red light.

The majority of schools included in the report earned a yellow light rating for policies that were considered less restrictive but still deemed as infringing on First Amendment-protected expression and open to potential abuse by administration.

The University of Minnesota Twin Cities and the University of Minnesota, Morris both received a yellow light rating.

Beltz said FIRE offers to assist schools with red and yellow light ratings in revising policies to target specific types of misconduct without using subjective language.

The report has drawn more attention in recent years as conversations about free speech and student expression on campus have made headlines, she said.

Still, many students may not even know where to find their school's policies or what to look for, she said.

"This report is so the school can know and prospective and current students can know about problems in policies," she said. "I do think wherever people fall on the political spectrum, they are interested in these issues, and they've seen students and faculty across that spectrum be censored and punished over policies like these."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440