There isn’t a week that goes by without a campus free speech controversy reaching the headlines. That’s why it’s as important as ever that we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) review the record each year and shine a spotlight on the 10 worst schools for free speech.
Since FIRE’s first “worst of the worst” list was released in 2011, the number of colleges and universities with the most restrictive speech codes has declined. However, 92 percent of American colleges still maintain speech codes that either clearly restrict—or could too easily be used to restrict—free speech. Students still find themselves corralled into absurdly-named “free speech zones,” taxed when they invite speakers deemed “controversial” by administrators, or even anonymously reported on by their fellow students when their speech is subjectively perceived to be “biased.”
The average person muzzled on a college campus is often an everyday college student or faculty member: someone who wants to chat about politics, a student who confides in a friend about their own mental health concerns, or a group of students that simply want to discuss free speech controversies with their peers.
As always, our list is presented in no particular order, and it includes both public and private institutions. Public colleges and universities are bound by the First Amendment, while private colleges on this list, though not required by the Constitution to respect student and faculty speech rights, explicitly promise to do so.
If you believe FIRE missed a college, or if you want to nominate a college for next year’s list, please let us know in the comments. Most of all, if you want to challenge your own school’s speech codes, please get in touch with us. FIRE is happy to work with schools to improve their speech codes. You can find more information on our website at www.thefire.org.
Northern Michigan University
Any list of schools that most shocked the conscience with their censorship in the past year would have to include Northern Michigan University (NMU). Until last year, NMU had a long-standing practice of prohibiting students suspected of engaging in or considering self-harm from discussing “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions” with other students. If they did, they faced the threat of disciplinary action.
After FIRE brought this information to a national stage, causing a social media firestorm, NMU hastily distanced itself from the practice and publicly committed not to punish students for discussing thoughts of self-harm.
Unfortunately, NMU has not answered all of its students’ questions. NMU is currently under investigation by the Departments of Justice and Education for allegations that it threatened to disenroll a student for discussing mental illness with a friend. The school allegedly forced the student to sign a behavioral contract promising not to do so again. Is that student now free from her contract? Is every student who received a letter about discussing self-harm now free to speak out? Will NMU ever acknowledge and apologize to the countless students it hurt in the past, many of whom have spoken up to FIRE and online? Until we get answers, NMU remains on our list of worst schools for free speech.
California State University, Los Angeles
Last February, conservative author and political commentator Ben Shapiro was scheduled to speak at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) at the invitation of a student chapter of Young America’s Foundation. After students threatened to protest Shapiro’s speech, CSULA demanded that the students hosting the event pay the cost of security because the appearance was “controversial.” The students objected, but it didn’t matter; CSULA President William Covino unilaterally canceled Shapiro’s speech, claiming he could appear at some future date if accompanied by a panel of speakers who disagree with him.
Shapiro threatened to show up and speak anyway. Hours before he was set to appear, CSULA relented. But while CSULA administrators no longer attempted to prevent Shapiro’s speech, some student protesters picked up where the university left off. Some students did the right thing by protesting outside—exercising a “more speech” response to speech they found offensive. However, other students engaged in a “heckler’s veto” by pulling the fire alarm and attempting to prevent attendees from entering the venue.
For all this, CSULA earned a bruised reputation for its lackluster dedication to freedom of expression—and a lawsuit. Shapiro and Young America’s Foundation sued CSULA, compelling the university to change the policy that allowed it to impose a tax on controversial speech. The lawsuit remains pending.
At FIRE, we’ve seen universities offer a number of viewpoint-discriminatory justifications for rejecting student groups’ applications to become officially recognized, but few are as persistent and brazen as Fordham University’s.
On November 17, the Fordham United Student Government (USG) Senate and Executive Board approved a prospective Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter. Dean of Students Keith Eldredge informed SJP’s members that he wanted to review the group’s status before it could be granted official recognition, and then chose to overrule the USG and deny SJP’s recognition on December 22. Eldredge wrote that he “cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country” and that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … often leads to polarization rather than dialogue.”
On January 25, FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent a letter to Fordham demanding the university recognize SJP and noting that its reasons for rejecting SJP fail to align with the university’s stated commitments to free expression. In its response to FIRE, Fordham doubled down on its rejection of SJP and offered a new baseless justification: that members of SJP chapters at other universities had engaged in conduct that would violate Fordham’s code of conduct.
What’s more, just last week, it was reported that Fordham is retaliating against a student who organized a rally to protest the school’s decision to ban SJP. Senior Sapphira Lurie has a hearing scheduled for today with Eldredge—who denied Lurie’s request to bring counsel and will conduct the hearing despite being both the complainant and adjudicator.
Fordham’s persistent refusal to live up to the promises it makes to its students earned it warnings from FIRE—and a place on this list.
University of Oregon
The University of Oregon’s (UO’s) Bias Response Team (BRT), and its response to a professor’s off-campus Halloween costume, earned it a spot on this year’s list.
UO’s BRT, which responds to student complaints about offensive (yet protected) speech, found itself embroiled in public controversy last spring and then tried to hide its records from public scrutiny. Criticism arose when the BRT’s annual reports surfaced, revealing that the BRT had intervened with the student newspaper because of a complaint that it “gave less press coverage to trans students and students of color.” In another instance, UO dispatched a case manager to dictate “community standards and expectations to” students who had the audacity to express “anger about oppression.”
When FIRE asked UO for records surrounding the complaints, UO claimed that it wouldn’t be in the public interest to share the records and demanded that FIRE pay for them. Apparent suppression of protected speech, coupled with a resistance to transparency, would alone be enough to earn UO the dubious honor of inclusion on this year’s list. But that’s not all.
Last fall, a law school professor found herself in hot water after hosting a private Halloween party at her home, attended by students and professors, where she wore blackface as part of her costume. According to the professor, the costume was “intended to provoke a thoughtful discussion on racism” by invoking Damon Tweedy’s memoir, Black Man in a White Coat.
The costume did, in fact, spark discussion—much of it criticizing the professor’s judgment. That’s the proper response to offensive speech: more speech. Yet the fact that students and faculty discussed the costume was a factor UO cited in deciding it had reason to override her First Amendment right to freedom of speech and punish her. UO’s move puts the cart before the horse and risks justifying punishment whenever expression motivates rigorous debate on campus.
California State University, Long Beach
This fall, California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) administrators betrayed First Amendment principles when they closed the curtain on a scheduled campus performance of the satirical play N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK (N*W*C*).
The university canceled the September 29 performance due to its apparent opposition to the play’s deliberately provocative content. N*W*C* is performed by Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and African-American actors who share personal narratives about how the construct of race shapes personal identity while also mocking stereotypes and racial slurs that perpetuate social injustice.
FIRE, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund wrote a letter to CSULB urging the university to protect artistic expression. The letter argued that the CSULB community should not be denied the opportunities for engagement the play provides. The university never reversed its actions, and Michele Roberge, then-executive director of the Richard & Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, where the play was slated to be performed, resigned to protest the censorship.
CSULB has a “red light” rating for free speech and a troubled history with protecting students’ civil liberties. Last fall, it ended a year-long moratorium on recognizing new student groups that threatened students’ ability to associate and organize, so it wasn’t hard to find a place for CSULB on this year’s list.
Last May, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and Dean Rakesh Khurana announced their plan to blacklist members of off-campus single-gender organizations, including fraternities, sororities, and Harvard-specific “final clubs.” Students determined to be members of these organizations would be banned from leadership positions on sports teams and official student organizations, and barred from receiving recommendations from the Dean’s Office for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
While not a straightforward “free speech” violation, Harvard’s actions so severely violate the correlated right to freedom of association that the university deserves inclusion on this list.
Organizations including FIRE and hundreds of students at Harvard pushed back against Harvard’s flagrant disregard for freedom of association. The backlash prompted the administration to announce that at least one favored single-gender club would be allowed to operate as long as it pretended it was co-ed. Even more troubling was the discovery that President Faust was willing to characterize freedom of association as primarily a defense for racists, apparently not realizing it was an indispensable tool for civil rights activism that protected the NAACP and other civil rights advocates on more than one occasion.
Earlier this year came news that the policy may be “revised or replaced” by a new committee made up of faculty, students, and administrators. FIRE strongly urges this new panel to shelve the policy altogether, lest Harvard wind up violating freedom of association for a third time.
Harvard last appeared on FIRE’s worst schools for free speech list in 2012. It still maintains FIRE’s worst, “red light” rating for free speech.
University of South Carolina
What lesson did students at the University of South Carolina (USC) learn in 2016? Even when you do everything you can to avoid getting in trouble for potentially controversial speech on campus, trouble may still find you.
Last February, USC student Ross Abbott and the campus chapters of Young Americans for Liberty and the College Libertarians filed a First Amendment lawsuit with FIRE’s assistance after Abbott was investigated for a free speech event for which the groups received prior approval.
In late 2015, the groups planned an event to draw attention to threats to free speech on campus. The event involved poster displays featuring examples of campus censorship across the country. Given that some of their posters included provocative words and symbols, the groups sought and obtained approval for the event ahead of time from USC’s director of campus life.
Despite these precautions, Abbott received a “Notice of Charges” the day after the event, demanding that he meet with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs to respond to student complaints of “discrimination.” Several weeks after their meeting, the office dropped its investigation, but it provided no clarification on USC’s treatment of protected speech.
Abbott and the groups now seek that clarification through their lawsuit, challenging not only Abbott’s investigation, but also USC’s requirements that expressive activity be pre-approved and limited to small, designated “free speech zones” on campus. The ongoing lawsuit is part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.
Last February, Williams President Adam Falk took what even he described as an “extraordinary step” when he unilaterally disinvited author and conservative commentator John Derbyshire, a polarizing figure for his writings on “race realism,” from the Massachusetts liberal arts college.
It didn’t seem to matter to President Falk that Derbyshire had been invited by the student organizers of a speaker series called “Uncomfortable Learning,” which seeks to purposely confront controversial and divisive issues in its programming. Nor did it matter that the group’s president, Zach Wood, is African-American, and that Derbyshire had been invited precisely so his writings and comments on race could be debated.
While nonetheless making paeans to Williams’ commitments to free expression, Falk asserted that “[t]here’s a line somewhere” and “Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it.” In a single, paternalistic stroke, President Falk declared that there were certain speakers and viewpoints that Williams students weren’t to engage, and he showed the lengths Williams would go to to keep them off campus. Falk has done his students a serious disservice—and earned Williams a place on this year’s list.
Making its second appearance in as many years on FIRE’s “worst” list is Georgetown University. As the presidential primary season got underway, Georgetown University Law Center informed a group of Bernie Sanders supporters that campus was no place for talking to fellow students about their chosen candidate. The students were informed that, because Georgetown is a tax-exempt institution, the law school could not allow any campaigning or partisan political speech on campus.
FIRE wrote to Georgetown Law last February, asking it to revisit its policy on student political speech. Every campaign season, we see examples of both public and private colleges erroneously suppressing student political speech because they believe it will jeopardize their federal tax-exempt status. Indeed, Georgetown Law student and Bernie supporter Alexander Atkins and a FIRE staffer were invited to speak on the issue at a hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight. Georgetown sent a letter to the Subcommittee pledging to revisit the law school’s policy.
In March, Georgetown Law released a revised policy but failed to answer many questions about permissible partisan student speech on campus. In fact, the group of Bernie supporters continued to face resistance and confusion from the law school for the entire election season.
This is not the first time that Georgetown played politics with speech on campus. The university has for years repeatedly violated its own policies on free speech and expression to the detriment of the student organization H*yas for Choice, the most recent example occurring in September.
While few free speech controversies truly surprise FIRE anymore, it’s fairly uncommon for a college or university to put four notches in its censorship belt in a matter of months. But if there’s any school that could do it, it would be DePaul University.
Here’s the rundown:
In April, after students chalked messages in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, DePaul warned all students that they were not allowed to chalk partisan messages on campus due to the university’s tax-exempt status—a justification that FIRE has refuted on several occasions.
A month later, when the College Republicans invited controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos to campus, DePaul attempted to obstruct the event by limiting Yiannopoulos’ speaking time to 15–20 minutes and charging the students $1,000 for extra security. When students stormed the stage and disrupted the event, the security guards refused to intervene. When the College Republicans sought to re-invite Yiannopoulos, DePaul banned them from doing so.
But DePaul was not done infringing on its students’ rights. In July, DePaul also banned the DePaul Young Americans for Freedom chapter from inviting conservative journalist Ben Shapiro to speak on campus.
FIRE wrote to DePaul about all of these incidents, urging it to adhere to its promises of free expression for students. Unfortunately, DePaul’s response did little besides deflect and blithely repeat its illusory commitment to working with students to invite speakers from across the ideological spectrum.
One might suspect that DePaul would think twice about resorting to the same censorship tactics again. However, only eight days after FIRE’s first letter, the university required the DePaul Socialists student organization pay hundreds of dollars for security for an informational meeting about the group, because the event could be “potentially controversial.”
These multiple acts of censorship, along with DePaul’s sordid prior history of restricting speech, led FIRE to ask whether DePaul University is the worst school for free speech in the United States. So it should be no surprise to anyone that DePaul finds itself on this year’s list of worst offenders.
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