Ds Scholarship

The Nation’s Worst Campuses For Free Speech

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its annual list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech. The list offers a troubling snapshot of where things stand in higher education today and is a stark reminder of just how much work needs to be done to restore a commitment to free inquiry, unfettered teaching, and robust debate.

The institutions “honored” by FIRE include such schools as Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts; Georgetown University; Stanford University; the University of Florida; the University of Illinois Chicago; and the University of North Carolina. The list of their transgressions is as jaw-dropping as it is disheartening. It’s worth reading all of it, but here’s an illustrative sampling.

Last September at Emerson College, students affiliated with the campus chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) distributed stickers that depicted a hammer and sickle and included the phrase “China Kinda Sus” (slang for “China is kind of suspicious”). The stickers provoked some online pushback. In response, Emerson officials quickly condemned the stickers for “anti-China hate,” suspended TPUSA, and launched an investigation. Even after Emerson acknowledged that TPUSA “did not officially intend to target anyone other than China’s government,” administrators bizarrely concluded that the group had somehow violated Emerson’s Bias-Related Behavior policy. FIRE summed up the whole debacle nicely, remarking, “As China’s government cracked down on institutions of higher education such as Hong Kong University, Emerson bravely stepped into the breach to shield the government from criticism.”

In October, the University of Florida blocked three professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a lawsuit on election law. After political science faculty Sharon Wright Austin, Michael McDonald, and Daniel Smith filed the pro forma paperwork to request approval to participate in the voting rights lawsuit, the university denied the requests on the grounds that testifying “may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida” and that “litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.” The decision drew widespread condemnation on First Amendment and academic freedom grounds, and matters only got worse as other faculty members came forward to describe how they’d been restricted in similar ways. In all of this, the university flatly violates its commitment to academic freedom and its mission of “sharing the benefits of our research and knowledge for the public good.”

Then there is the University of Illinois Chicago, where law professor Jason Kilborn got in trouble for alluding to offensive words which he went out of his way to avoid actually using. His civil procedure course exam included an employment-law question in which an employer was charged with discrimination. To avoid using offensive terms but still cover the topic, the exam question delicately noted that the complainant said she’d been called “a ‘n____’ and ‘b____’ (profane expressions for African Americans and women)” on the job.

Kilborn had previously used the carefully redacted prompt without incident. Well, someone complained and UIC, in turn, suspended Kilborn and launched an investigation. Despite a subsequent agreement that Kilborn would return to his classroom without further ado, renewed student protests led UIC to violate the agreement and instead that Kilborn undergoes mandatory reducation on racism before being allowed back in class. The kicker? As FIRE puts it, “In a stunning display of unintended irony, the training was barely underway when Kilborn found that the individualized training materials include the same redacted slur he used in his test question.”

FIRE’s list should trouble anyone who cares about democracy, education, and the free exchange of ideas. As the Supreme Court powerfully argued more than a half-century ago in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation.”

At that time, the Court warned that, “Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

Those entrusted with leading our institutions of higher education would do well to remember that charge. After all, they spend much of their time trying to tackle many challenges. Administrative bloat. Rising costs. Troubling completion rates. These are tough problems to solve and the solutions aren’t clear. But none of these problems matters if robust debate, free inquiry, and fearless teaching are not protected and pursued. Without these things universities are universities in name only.

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