Southern schools dominate list of best colleges for free speech

September 6, 2012

By Joshua Rhett Miller at FoxNews.com

Just as college students head off to campus, a list of schools that hold the First Amendment above political correctness is out  - with a slew of Southern schools leading the way.

The list, released Wednesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), cites James Madison University, the College of William & Mary, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania for protecting free speech on campus and maintaining policies honoring freedom of expression.

“It’s easy for students to get caught up in the frenzy of trying to get into the best-ranked schools, but if the college you attend doesn’t respect free speech, your education will suffer regardless of how high the college is ranked,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said.

FIRE has spotlighted schools where free speech is taboo, including colleges that restrict expression of controversial ideas to small sections of campus and others that bar students from protesting affirmative action and government policies.

To determine this year’s list of pro-speech schools, Lukianoff said FIRE considered whether an institution’s policies restrict First Amendment-protected speech and whether the school had censored speech in recent years. Each of the seven schools surveyed out of roughly 400 colleges and universities received a “green light” rating, meaning its policies did not imperil free speech on campus.

Only 16 schools in all received that rating and roughly 65 percent of all schools received so-called red light ratings for speech codes that are “laughably unconstitutional,” Lukianoff said.

“Believe it or not, 16 schools getting a green light is a major improvement,” he said.

Three of the schools on the list – James Madison, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University – were included for the first time following revisions to its policies pertaining to student expression. The remaining four schools were selected for the second consecutive year.

In a statement to FoxNews.com, James Madison officials said “liberty and freedom” are essential to its mission.

“At James Madison University we value and honor diverse perspectives,” said Dr. Josh Bacon, director of JMU’s Office of Judicial Affairs and Restorative Justice. “Freedom of speech is essential to advance learning, research, change, and ultimately the search for truth. Our students need to learn to express their opinions and just as importantly be open to the opinion of others; we believe this is essential to our mission of creating educated and enlightened citizens.”

At University of Pennsylvania, officials said the Ivy League school is simply upholding the tradition started by a famous Philadelphian.

“The University of Pennsylvania is committed to the free exchange of ideas,” the school said in a statement. “That was a principle of our founder Ben Franklin, and it is central to the mission of any great university.”

There are plenty of schools where free expression isn’t part of the learning experience, Lukianoff said.

“The kind of speech that can get you in trouble on college campuses is truly shocking,” Lukianoff told FoxNews.com. “Students are learning to keep their mouths shut when they disagree … things that are so vague and broad that they potentially ban any speech that’s controversial or interesting.”

Types of censored speech at American universities run the gamut from policies that restrict offensive or potentially hurtful speech to “flat-out political censorship,” Lukianoff said.

“Universities seem to think they can regulate every aspect of a student’s life,” he continued. “It’s important that universities know that they can write policies that are in line with the Constitution and the sky won’t fall.”

In March, FIRE released its second annual list of the 12 worst colleges for free speech, naming, among others, the University of Cincinnati, Bucknell University, Yale University and Harvard University.

Bucknell, for example, banned students on its Pennsylvania campus in 2010 from holding anti-affirmative action “bake sale” protests. A year earlier, a protest of President Obama’s stimulus plan featuring Monopoly money distributed by students was halted.

“They were stopped from doing that,” Lukianoff said. “Other times it’s very much an exercise of raw power, where an administrator doesn’t like being criticized or a threat of censorship.”

The University of Cincinnati was also included due to its “shockingly restrictive” free speech zone that comprises just 0.1 percent of its 137-acre campus. The zone was struck down on First Amendment grounds in federal court this summer in litigation coordinated in part by FIRE.

Other schools sharing that dubious distinction included Syracuse University, Widener University and St. Augustine’s College in North Carolina.

In contrast, Lukianoff said he was pleased to see that free speech “caught on” in Virginia, home to three of the seven schools named to this year’s list.

“There’s a tendency that once it catches on with one school in a region, all of the other schools nearby follow suit,” he said. “It had this kind of spreading effect.”

Schools: University of Virginia James Madison University Mississippi State University The College of William and Mary University of Tennessee – Knoxville University of Pennsylvania University of Mississippi