What do Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins have in common?
These elite private universities may share space on an ambitious college-bound senior’s application list, but they also bring up the rear in the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, which the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education produced in partnership with analytics firm College Pulse and news website RealClearEducation.
Princeton, which occupies the No. 1 spot in the vaunted U.S. News & World Report’s list of top national universities, is a lackluster 135th among 154 ranked schools on the free speech list.
Just 27% of students said they would feel very comfortable (10%) or somewhat comfortable (17%) publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.
FIRE assigns schools a green, yellow or red-light rating for their rules governing student expression. Princeton was tagged with a red light for maintaining at least one policy that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
For all its Ivy League cachet, Harvard fares little better. It’s ranked 130th among the 154 schools and has a red-light speech code rating. A paltry 28% of students feel at least somewhat comfortable disagreeing with professors on contentious subject matter.
Organizers polled more than 37,000 students, conducting the largest-ever campus free expression survey to compile the rankings.
A few bright spots notwithstanding, results show U.S. colleges and universities continue to struggle when it comes to defending the right to ask difficult questions, challenge prevailing sentiments and voice contrarian views.
Public colleges, which are government agencies obligated to respect First Amendment rights, didn’t rank appreciably higher than their private counterparts operating without constitutional constraints. The best school for free speech (Claremont McKenna College) and the worst (DePauw University) are both private.
Cumulatively, 66% of students said it’s rarely, sometimes or often OK to shout down speakers with whom they disagree, and 23% condoned the use of violence to squelch offensive speech. Even if professors and deans aren’t inculcating these repressive attitudes, they clearly aren’t doing enough to curb them.
What will it take to turn the tide? Securing voluntary institutional commitments such as the excellent Chicago Statement could help. Since the University of Chicago (No. 2 in the free speech rankings) codified its support for free inquiry in January 2015, some 83 other campuses have adopted or endorsed the statement of principles.
For a policy with some teeth, states can follow in California’s footsteps. Its Leonard Law, adopted in 1992, is the only statute in the country that extends First Amendment protections to students enrolled in private high schools, colleges and universities. A 2006 update expanded the law to cover public institutions.
The brainchild of then-state Sen. Bill Leonard, R-San Bernardino, allows students to express themselves freely whether they attend a public University of California campus or a private school such as Stanford, Pepperdine or Claremont McKenna. Administrators who punish students for protected speech can be sued in state courts.
Guest lectures from conservative firebrands such as Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulous still court controversy in the left-leaning Golden State, but campus leaders can invoke the Leonard Law to explain why they can’t indulge the aggrieved. Administrators are insulated from outrage mobs. Their hands are tied; they’re just following the law.
The prospect of a nationwide Leonard Law is as tantalizing as it is remote. Congress could give private colleges a choice: Affirm free speech rights or forfeit all federal funds, including financial aid and student loan dollars paid directly to schools on students’ behalf. Why should taxpayers have to subsidize censorship?
Statehouses offer the most fertile soil to plant the Leonard Law’s seeds. In 2021 alone, lawmakers have introduced 40 campus free speech bills in 22 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The efforts fall short of California’s gold standard, but their sheer number shows state governments to be true laboratories of democracy.
The Constitution establishes a floor for individual rights rather than a ceiling. While no law, rule or policy can water down the First Amendment, there’s ample opportunity to fortify it.
Students pick private colleges for their athletics, academic rigor, reputation, religious affiliation and a hundred other reasons, but administrative authoritarianism is never among them.
A Leonard Law would let them attend the college of their choice without sacrificing the right to speak.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.