The 2024 college free speech rankings released this week by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) reveal ten public universities as the most friendly to free speech. Conversely, nine of the ten schools with the most restrictive campus speech policies are private.
Harvard University came in dead last.
Over 55 thousand students from 254 schools of higher education responded to the survey, which was conducted on smartphones. They answered questions about how tolerant the university atmosphere is, whether they felt the need to self-censor their speech, and if they sensed pressure to stay silent or conform. “The key factors differentiating high-performing schools (the top five) from poorly performing ones (the bottom five) are scores on the components of ‘Tolerance Difference’ and ‘Disruptive Conduct,’” according to the FIRE report.
Listed in the top five as most friendly to free speech were Michigan Technological University, Auburn, the University of new Hampshire, Oregon State University, and Florida State. Harvard University came in at the bottom of the barrel with the ignominious distinction as “the only school with an ‘Abysmal’ speech climate rating,” according to FIRE. The lowest ranked schools aside from the Crimson are Penn, Fordham, Georgetown, and the University of South Carolina. The report disturbingly noted: “Deplatforming attempts that occurred at schools ranked in the bottom five had an alarming 81% success rate.” As well:
“More than half of students (56%) expressed worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they have said or done, and just over a quarter of students (26%) reported that they feel pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes.”
There is evidence to illustrate that fear of reputational damage is not unfounded. A Virginia Tech graduate recently filed suit against nearly 100 fellow students after she was wrongly identified in a video as the person uttering a racial epithet. Ellie Van Beuren filed the defamation lawsuit after receiving threats like “Hey whore it’s on sight when I see you.” She was also the subject of online harassment like this: “Let’s ruin this bitch’s life,” (though this last comment was retracted.) The truth ultimately came out that Van Beuren was not the woman in the video, but by then her reputation was in tatters.
Institutions of higher learning that clamp down on free speech knowingly or unknowingly foster such situations. For many young people, campus life has become a treacherous and potentially destructive obstacle course. At the very least, many feel that they must hide their genuine opinions or risk reputational damage at worst and online bullying at best. FIRE published many student voices, most often painting a picture of restrictive speech environments:
“I am a straight white male and was told that I did not understand what was being talked about when referring to underprivileged communities because I have never had to face struggles like other people. I did not feel there was any appropriate way to respond despite growing up in extreme poverty.”
– Class of 2023
“While working on an assignment, I saw that there were parts that were very politically opinionated from our professor. I did not feel comfortable bringing it up at the time because I did not want the professor to fail me for thinking differently than them.”
– Class of 2025
“In class people know my name, and I had an unpopular opinion and I didn’t want it linked back to me so that people could attack me online.”
– Class of 2023
Free Speech Professors Paying the Price
The campus speech environment is a tricky one for many professors to maneuver as well. The FIRE report noted: “Harvard’s score was dragged down by the fact that nine professors and researchers at Harvard faced calls to punished [sic] or fired based on what they had said or written — and seven of the nine were actually professionally disciplined.”
The Boston Herald quoted FIRE Director of Polling and Analytics Sean Stevens as saying, “Some of the most prestigious universities in our country have the most repressive administrations. Students should know that a college degree at certain schools may come at the expense of their free speech rights.” Parents shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for college would be wise to consult the FIRE report before subjecting their child to a potentially hostile free speech environment.
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