The Ten Worst Colleges for Free Speech (But Why Are There Any?)

Just how bad colleges have become when it comes to free speech and toleration for anyone who disagrees with those who hold power cannot be underestimated. Many Americans who think back fondly on their college days decades ago are shocked to learn the truth.

Toward that end, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has just released its Top Ten list—the worst colleges and universities in the country last year when it came to freedom of speech.  

Introducing the list, FIRE’s president Greg Lukianoff writes, “The past year will be remembered as the year that freedom of speech (or the lack thereof) on U.S. campuses became international news. Even President Obama felt compelled to comment on the issue three separate times.”

What we learn from these cases is that almost everyone affiliated with higher education these days must tread very carefully to avoid trouble with the people who feel empowered to control speech. 

After looking at the schools that made FIRE’s rogues gallery, I’ll offer some thoughts on the reasons behind the collapse of support for free speech.

Top “honors” went to Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, recently thrown into turmoil by president Simon Newman’s firing of two faculty members who criticized his idea that the school should reduce its freshman class by “drowning some of the bunnies” (i.e., culling out academically weak students). Whether the president’s concept was good or bad, firing people for criticizing it is the worst way for an educational leader to react.

Second spot went to Northwestern University, where administrators put two prominent faculty members through ordeals because of  “inappropriate” writings. Especially revealing was the treatment of professor Laura Kipnis after students complained that an essay she’d written made them feel uncomfortable. College students should learn to make counter-arguments when they disagree with someone, but Northwestern encourages them to file official complaints.

Louisiana State earned third place for firing a tenured education professor who had been on the faculty for 20 years. Her offense was occasional use of profanity, which university officials elevated to the status of “sexual harassment.” Ever since the Department of Education launched its crusade against any conduct even vaguely suggesting sexual harassment, everyone has to fear that a slip of the tongue or poor choice of words will lead to severe trouble.

University of California—San Diego made the list because administrators cut all funding for a satirical student paper, The Koala. Among other horrible infractions, the paper mocked the concept of “safe spaces” on campus. School administrators denounced the paper for “offensive and hurtful language.” These days, college officials have little tolerance for writing that hypersensitive students might find offensive.

In a case that seems to blend equal parts of “sexual harassment” and offensiveness, Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota fired classics professor Dave Hillman for his role in an authentic version of Seneca’s play Medea. Apparently, the production was too good at replicating “the ancient practice of confronting viewers with their lavish and corrupt lifestyles,” because it involved “phallus-shaped objects.” That made administrators who fear complaints about “harassment” hurry to prevent them by firing the guilty professor.

President David Boren put his school, the University of Oklahoma, on the list by summarily expelling two students because of their “leadership role in a racist and exclusionary chant.” The First Amendment prevents public universities from punishing students just on account of their speech, no matter how offensive. As Lukianoff comments, many schools have taken Oklahoma’s action as an “all clear” signal that they can “toss freedom of speech and basic fairness out the window.”

Marquette University earned a place on the list because of its efforts at firing tenured professor John McAdams. He committed the terrible offense of criticizing a female graduate student for her handling of a student who asked about discussing same-sex marriage. Eager to rub salt in the wounds, the university barred him from campus on the ludicrous grounds that he was a “threat to public safety.” The case against Professor McAdams, which the Pope Center covered here, remains undecided.

In a truly astounding display of intolerance and hypersensitivity, Colorado College got a place on the list for its treatment of a student over a joking, six-word post on Yik Yak. Responding anonymously to “#blackwomenmatter” someone wrote, “They matter, they’re just not hot.” School officials found that so intolerable that they first tracked down the post and after learning that one of their students was responsible, gave him a 21-month suspension and even attempted to keep him from taking courses elsewhere.  After FIRE’s intervention, school officials reduced the suspension to six months, but punishing a student at all just because he didn’t take #blackwomenmatter seriously is absurd.

At the University of Tulsa, a student, Trey Barnett, was suspended for more than a year and barred from receiving a degree in his major when he returned. Why? Because his fiancé had written some Facebook posts that criticized a professor. When the headstrong administrator found that Barnett had shared information about her unjust complaint against him, she levied the severe penalties. To make things worse, university officials later targeted the student newspaper because it criticized them over the Barnett affair.

Finally, we come to Wesleyan University. Following a spate of “Black Lives Matter” protests, the student newspaper published a column that took issue with some of the BLM rhetoric, arguing that it encouraged violence. Angry BLM supporters quickly circulated a petition demanding that the university defund the paper unless their demands were met, including mandatory “social justice/diversity” training for the paper’s editors and guaranteed space in the paper for articles representing “marginalized groups and voices.” The protesters also threatened to steal and destroy copies of the paper unless their demands were met. 

New attacks on free speech occur almost daily, so there is no question but that FIRE will have many colleges and universities to consider when it compiles its list of the worst schools of 2016.

Why do we see such hostility to free speech on college campuses, though? Why the haste to silence or punish people just for having said something? Colleges have always been contentious places—remember the Vietnam era?—but things have dramatically changed in recent years.

One reason why is that mid-level university administrators now hold so much power to control speech and behavior through speech codes and anti-harassment policies. As GMU law professor Todd Zywicki explained in this article, those people seldom have any strong attachment to unfettered discussion, but do have a strong preference for a campus with as little turmoil as possible.

Another reason for the increasing hostility to free speech is that far more faculty members than in the past think that free speech is actually bad. Those people, found overwhelmingly in the humanities, social sciences, and especially all the rather new identity studies programs, see their mission as changing society far more than enlightening young minds and encouraging them to search for truth. For them, free speech that might cause students to question their deep beliefs is unwanted.

Finally, many students arrive on campus already dedicated to various social causes and are so certain of their righteousness that they regard anyone who disagrees as an evil person who deserves to be silenced. Instead of advocating academic freedom, they insist on “academic justice,” which means controlling what may be said on campus—as one Harvard student wanted.

Free speech won’t return to its vital position until our schools again teach students that the only civilized way to deal with people who disagree with you is through rational discourse, not through silencing or punishing them.