Last year, the New York Times reported that legislatures in Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina imposed policies on public colleges and universities that established campus speech guidelines.
The efforts are part of a growing trend that has highlighted a controversial question: do college students have the right of free speech? And are colleges a beacon of free speech?
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a foundation dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities, recently compiled a list of the 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.
PRIVATE VS. PUBLIC
The list, presented in no particular ranking order, features both public and private colleges — which is an important distinction. While public colleges and universities have to abide by the First Amendment, private colleges aren’t required to do so.
“Free speech liberties don’t apply, by default, on a private campus,” Adam B. Steinbaugh, of FIRE, says in an interview with WORLD magazine. “The Constitution, including the First Amendment, only restricts acts by the government. So, private organizations, like private colleges, don’t have to abide by it.”
Yet, experts argue that private schools have a moral duty when it comes to the First Amendment.
“Despite the lowered standard, private institutions arguably have a moral imperative to scrutinize racist speech on campus due to its pernicious impacts on minority students,” Jimin He writes for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.
That said, both public and private schools have some sort of obligation to provide a safe and fair space for learning.
“A critical mission of any university is to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge,” He writes. “Thus, universities must be free to provide a forum for the discussion of ideas, especially controversial and radical ones that society may not approve of. First Amendment protection is critical to maintaining the academic freedom necessary for any university.”
TOP B-SCHOOLS? NOT NECESSARILY FOR FREE SPEECH
A number of B-schools ranked by Poets & Quants for Undergrads made the FIRE’s list of “Worst Colleges for Free Speech.”
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (whose B-school ranked No. 55 by P&Q) in Troy, New York has been placed on the FIRE’s list for two years in a row.
In March 2018, private security guards at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute forced students Michael Gardner and Advaith Narayan off from a sidewalk as they were passing out flyers and buttons criticizing the school’s administration during a hockey game.
According to the booted students, officers forced them off the sidewalk claiming the sidewalks were under “eminent domain.” In response to the incident, RPI spokesperson Richie Hunter told the Washington Free Beacon in an email that “students are allowed to distribute materials on campus with prior authorization,” but stated that Gardner and Narayan failed to gain that prior approval.
“Eastern New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was an easy choice for our 2018 list of worst colleges for free speech,” the FIRE writes. “When we learned that students passing out buttons and flyers critical of RPI’s administration were told by campus security officers to ‘vacate’ the sidewalk because of ‘eminent domain,’ we knew the school was likely to be on this year’s list, too.”
Syracuse University (whose B-school ranked No. 40 by P&Q) is another repeat “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” listed school by the FIRE.
According to the FIRE, the university, which is also based in New York, suspended students of the Theta Tau engineering fraternity chapter for violating university speech codes over words used in a private, satirical skit — which featured racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and other offensive language.
The fraternity argued that the video was a parody and sued to be reinstated at Syracuse University. However, in January, a judge upheld the suspensions and ruled that the university “clearly within [its] guidelines,” Syracuse.com reports.
“Despite a New York state court finding that the videos were protected under First Amendment standards, which the private university promises to uphold under its official policies, the court inexplicably ignored this point and upheld the punishment,” the FIRE writes. “The students plan to appeal, lending hope that SU will finally be held accountable for flagrantly violating its students’ expressive freedoms.”
At the University of Wisconsin System (UW-Madison’s B-school is ranked #23 by P&Q), a UW-La Crosse chancellor, Joe Gow, was reprimanded after he invited Nina Hartley — a nurse, sex educator, and former adult film star — to lecture in his school’s Free Speech Week programming.
In addition to the letter of reprimand, the University of Wisconsin System also imposed financial consequences on Gow for his “poor judgment” and “lack of responsible oversight,” stating that his actions would negatively impact the Board of Regents’ consideration of his salary moving forward, the FIRE reports.
In response, Gow wrote that he decided to choose “a topic, sexuality, and a speaker, Hartley, that would give the members of our campus community an opportunity to engage with someone who holds a perspective likely to be very different from their own.” Check out the FIRE for the full list of “Worst Colleges for Free Speech.”