What are the Worst Colleges in America for Free Speech?

Peter Bonilla is a Program Officer with FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), a watchdog group that monitors free speech restrictions in higher education. PolicyMic recently caught up with him to ask about FIRE’s recent list of the twelve worst colleges at protecting free speech, featured in The Huffington Post.

PolicyMic (PM): FIRE's list catalogues incidents at various universities involving the restriction of free speech. Give our readers some idea of the scope of the challenges here. In what ways does expression on college campuses collide with administration policies?

Peter Bonilla (PB): This should be a simple matter. Public universities are required by law to uphold the freedom of speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Private universities are not, though most hold themselves to the same or a similar standard by extolling the university campus as a haven of free speech and inquiry - the desirable and much-idealized “marketplace of ideas.” The Harvards of the world don’t like to be seen as less “free” than their public counterparts.

That said, there are numerous threats to freedom of speech on campus, often put in place by the very administrations that make claims to respect free speech. A startling number of colleges, for example, maintain speech codes that either violate students’ First Amendment rights or the promises of free speech they make to their students and are bound to uphold. A large part has to do with the politically-correct atmosphere of universities today and the worry many universities have about keeping an “inclusive” environment, which frequently ends up with students charged with “harassment” or other charges for offending prevailing sensibilities. University administrations are also increasingly risk averse, and have the temptation to preempt controversies, which often results in the rights of one person or another being abridged. More recently, after the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, there has been renewed talk in higher education circles of how to control students who may be deemed a threat to the community. This too can have troubling free speech implications, if not handled carefully.

PM: Describe the methodoloy used to formulate this this list. How were these schools selected? 

PB: When The Huffington Post asked FIRE to come up with the list, there were a number of considerations. FIRE has a Red Alert list which has six schools that, over the years, have had particularly egregious violations of free speech which they have refused to resolve. Those six choices were automatic. For the other six, we similarly used experience as our guide. Which administrations have failed over and over? Which ones just don’t seem to get it? The exception to this methodology was Marshall University in West Virginia, which made the list simply because it had so many policies that so thoroughly violated students’ First Amendment rights. In that way, Marshall represents the wide swath of universities that maintain unconstitutional speech codes.

PM: Were religious universities excluded or just treated differently for the purposes of compiling it? 

PB: We don’t exempt religious universities from scrutiny simply because they are religious. Many religiously affiliated universities do promise free speech rights to their students, and when they do, we expect them to live up to their promises. DePaul University, for example, easily made the list because it has on numerous occasions violated the strong promises of free speech it makes - most recently by using unconvincing post hoc justifications for denying recognition to a drug policy reform student group. However, when religious universities make clear that they place certain values above free speech, we respect their right to do so. The First Amendment isn’t worth much if we aren’t willing to recognize that it includes the right of private institutions - and not just religious institutions - to determine their own values and identity, and to ask members of their community to uphold those values. This applies to religious universities like Baylor and BYU, but it also applies to secular institutions like Bard College.

PM: Free speech restrictions can, as this list outlines, target professors or students. Which do you think is more dangerous? 

PB: I’m not sure I could say one over the other - both are indicative of the same problem pervading campuses. Speech is too often chilled by the worry that it may lead to disciplinary charges, and students in particular are remarkably misinformed about their free speech rights. There are all sorts of reinforcing mechanisms, like restrictive speech codes, that give them the false impression that they have a right not to be offended, or not to have their beliefs seriously challenged, and that they can simply report offensive speech to the authorities and have it investigated or prosecuted. In many of the same ways, this chilling of free speech is prevalent among the faculty as well, both inside and outside the classroom. Both of these situations contribute to the same outcome - a corps of students entering the 21st century with deficiencies in critical thinking skills, inability to deal with adversity, and unpreparedness to fully participate in a democratic society.

PM: How often do students find out about free-speech restrictions on their campus and how often do they mount effective resistance on their own? 

PB: I’m sure it’s very common for students to be unaware of what has gone on at their universities, and even more common for them to be unfamiliar with their basic rights and what their universities promise them. I know from my undergraduate experience that I hardly thought about it at all. I know I never read my student handbook, and I had only a vague sense that my rights within the confines of my campus were probably pretty similar to what they would be in the rest of society. As it turns out I was right, but it still would have done me a lot of good to look. We frequently hear from students who are blown away when they read their policies and learn of all the abridgements of their rights they are subjected to. Even that, though, is hard to contextualize when so many young people today can’t name even one of the five fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.

I think, in the course of FIRE’s eleven years, we have seen a significant increase in awareness among the student population of their rights and how they are violated. We do our best to help in this area - for example, by publishing and distributing a series of guides to free speech and other student rights. We also frequently help coordinate efforts by student groups - ranging from religious student groups to grassroots groups like Students for a Democratic Society - to challenge and successfully overturn speech codes and free speech zone policies. All this has been very encouraging, but there’s still a long way to go.

PM: There appears to be a fine balance between allowing students and faculty to speak their mind and creating an atmosphere that is inclusive. For example, this list mentions Yale’s decision to prevent student government from distributing shirts calling Harvard students “sissies.” Does free speech protection require such vigilance because the gray areas are so enormous or because there is some reason to allow even clearly offensive speech? Are all these decisions in the end political and based on what the regulators think counts as “within the bounds” of civil discourse? 

PB: I think much of what supposedly necessitates a “balance,” in the eyes of college administrators and some students, is an illusion. A common example of this is the straw man created when people say that free speech ends where “hate speech” begins. Well, it doesn’t. Almost all of what we call “hate speech” is as free as any other speech. Does this mean we have to suffer fools quietly? Of course not. There are any number of ways people remedy hurtful or inflammatory speech - starting with passionately speaking their opposition to it and doing what they can to encourage more productive dialogue. But to effectively address it, we need to come from a place of understanding that people have the right to say what deeply offends us. If we start with the assumption that certain topics, even certain words, are simply off limits, we’ve already lost.

PM: There’s also a safety balance right? Yale decided to censor some pictures of the prophet Mohammed in a recent book on the grounds that publishing it might spur violence. Is this the wrong decision because these pictures wouldn’t actually spur violence, or because free speech is worth preserving even at the cost of violence?

PB: This topic also has a way of getting dramatically overblown, resulting in the chilling of speech out of misplaced fear. I think Yale’s censorship of the Mohammed illustrations (in the book The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen) is a fine illustration of how we can go much too far in order to avoid the possibility of offending others. There were, as far as I’m aware, no actual threats of violence over the possible publication of the images. Rather, the publishers became fixated on the idea of potential violence - that if the images were published, there was a chance someone out there would react violently to them. In the end, all images were removed, even historical images of Mohammed that have never been associated with violence. Even if there were actual threats of violence, do we really want to invite the least tolerant people - not just in our society but possibly in the world - to dictate what we say, and what we publish?

PM: Which university on this list would you least like to attend, based on the free speech problems that have been identified? 

PB: Well, I don’t know if on the basis of free speech difficulties alone I would rule any of them out or cite any as particularly undesirable. Granted, they all have their difficulties and have had their run-ins with free speech on various issues. What they also have in common, though, is that they owe it to their students to respect the right to free speech, so they can be held accountable for failing to do so. I’m glad that FIRE is able to help in that fight to keep universities open to diverse ideas and opinions, as they design themselves to be.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons


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Peter Bonilla

Peter Bonilla is the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to defending the free speech and individual liberties of college students and faculty across the political and ideological spectrum. Peter worked as the literary manager of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company prior to joining FIRE in 2008. Peter writes in his spare time, and has received a fellowship in playwriting from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Had he known a little bit more about the Statue of Liberty, he would have made a nice sum of money on 'Jeopardy!' in 2009. His B.A., in Theater Arts and Economics, is from the University of Pennsylvania. An expatriate of Washington, DC, he lives in Philadelphia.

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