Which Colleges Support Free Speech?

Some colleges support the First Amendment more than others. For years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has been documenting the decline of free expression on American campuses, and its 2020 College Free Speech Rankings reveal that on many campuses, the problem is just getting worse.

By surveying nearly 20,000 students at 55 schools, FIRE and RealClearEducation determined where students felt most free to speak their minds—and where they felt they could barely speak up at all. Measuring tolerance, openness to difficult conversations, administration support, self-expression (or self-censorship), and speech codes, students explained how comfortable they felt engaging with unpopular ideas on their own campuses.

The best schools were the University of Chicago, Kansas State University, and Texas A&M University. The worst were DePauw University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Louisiana State University. Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth and Harvard ranked in the bottom 15 schools.

One anonymous student reported of the climate at DePauw: “A professor was making a comment on how all Republicans are racist and selfish. As a Republican I felt that I could not speak up and defend myself because of the position of power the professor was in.”

Supporting free speech on campus isn’t just a conservative issue, though. As Greg Lukianoff, CEO of FIRE, told Philanthropy magazine: In the mid-2010s, the list of cancelled speakers on campus grew to include prominent liberals guilty of “alleged violations of liberal orthodoxy.”

“That got more people thinking,” Lukianoff said. “Are we actually at the point where people who are considered political or intellectual blasphemers are not allowed on campus?”

The answer at schools such as DePauw University and Harvard is, evidently, yes.

Free-speech muzzling on campus can take the form of campus-wide protests against conservative or unorthodox speakers. More chillingly, however, it can simply cause students to censor themselves. Sixty percent of students say they have kept their opinions to themselves in order to avoid backlash.

FIRE Senior Research Fellow Sean Stevens, who combed through thousands of anecdotal responses to the survey, says a few themes emerged: descriptions of a “chilling effect” on campus free speech, feelings of intimidation by the political “in-group,” minorities experiencing difficulty discussing issues of race, and anxiety over power differentials (fear of retribution by a professor or administrator of a different ideology, for example).

When free speech grows rarer on so many campuses, how are donors to respond? Philanthropists can support free speech on campus by refusing to send money to schools with poor records on free speech, by supporting organizations committed to bringing bipartisan dialogue to campus, or by funding more research on the state of campus free speech—and how students and their professors can encourage more free expression.

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