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The 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech: 2013

By December 27, 2013

College is where inquisitive minds go to be exposed to new ways of thinking. But on some campuses, the quest for knowledge is frustrated when administrators censor speech they would prefer be kept out of the marketplace of ideas.

To close out the year, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) want to highlight some of the worst colleges for free speech since March 2012—the last time we published this list. (Our first list, from 2011, is here.)

Most of the schools we include in this year’s list are public colleges or universities bound by the First Amendment. But some of them are private colleges that, though not required by the Constitution to respect student and faculty free speech rights, nonetheless promise to do so. (As we said last year, if you’re looking for schools like Brigham Young or Liberty University to appear on this list, you’ll be disappointed. Students who attend those schools know what they’re getting themselves into.) One of the institutions listed isn’t even a college, but still deserves special mentioning for the profound effect it had on campus expression this year.

Of course, a “top 10″ list cannot include all the colleges that violated free speech rights over the last nearly two years. Two notable colleges that are not on the list include Modesto Junior College (MJC), where, earlier this year, a student was ordered to stop handing out Constitutions on Constitution Day. It was a huge case and would have made the list if not for a recent decision by the college to dramatically improve its policies. MJC dropped some of the worst features of its original policy and have pledged to adopt a permanent policy change that respects the First Amendment. FIRE is optimistic, but will monitor the situation closely, so stay tuned.

The other college is the University of Kansas (KU), which just announced a highly restrictive social media policy for all staff and professors in the wake of a controversial tweet by a journalism professor. We just wrote to the school and want to give KU the chance to respond and/or reform the policy.

For those interested in learning more about the the fight for student rights, check out my book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. In the book, I highlight even more examples of egregious free speech violations from my 12-year fight for basic liberties at colleges across the country.

The State University of New York College at Oswego

The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) earns its rightful place on this list for nonsensically suspending a student who asked rival hockey coaches for their thoughts about his school’s coach in order to complete a class assignment. Because he simply informed the coaches through email that they did not have to say only positive things about their SUNY Oswego counterpart, student Alex Myers was alleged to “defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.” As a result of the charges, Myers was placed on interim suspension and forced to vacate his campus residence. After intense public pressure from FIRE and media outlets like Gawker, the university eventually dropped Myers’ suspension and allowed him to return to campus—but only after the school sent a destructive message to student journalists about asking tough questions.

Harvard University

In George Orwell’s 1984, one of the methods that the government of Oceania used to control its population was constant surveillance. Citizens were afraid to speak their minds because they never knew when they were being monitored by “Big Brother.” If you’re a member of the Harvard University community, you might have that same uneasy feeling after it was revealed earlier this year that the administration violated school policy in covertly accessing 16 residential deans’ email accounts. The search was undertaken to determine the source of a leak to the media about a high-profile cheating scandal on campus. The deans, who also serve as lecturers within the school, weren’t notified that their email accounts were accessed until months after it occurred. As Harvard’s student newspaper The Crimson reports, the effect of the covert search has been a chilling effect on faculty speech. Though an official university investigation into the affair concluded that the search was conducted in “good faith,” the administrator responsible for ordering the search has resigned. The question remains: how safe are Harvard students and faculty from future snooping efforts? (Also: Check out other censorship, free speech, and rights issues at Harvard over the last decade)

University of Alabama

The University of Alabama earns its place on this year’s list through its bureaucratic assault on common sense and the Constitution. In April 2013, the Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ) student group was blocked from mounting a peaceful counter-demonstration to a Bama Students for Life “Genocide Awareness Project” display that featured graphic abortion-related images. When AASRJ students tried to hand out their materials near the display, they were told by a police officer that without a grounds use permit, they could face arrest. Why not get the permit? For one, Alabama’s grounds use policy requires applicants to apply for a permit 10 working days in advance. This put groups like AASRJ—which had less than 24 hours to plan its counter-demonstration—out of luck. But that’s almost beside the point: It’s absurd that students at any public university should ever have to request permission from their colleges to exercise basic free speech rights, like handing out literature in the campus’ public spaces. Although Alabama slightly revised its policy in response to pressure from FIRE, concerns still remain. Administrators still enjoy far too much discretion in approving permit requests, and the fact remains that spontaneous events—a common feature of college life—are still unduly restricted.

Dixie State University

For more than a year now, Utah’s Dixie State University has resorted to increasingly ridiculous defenses of its unconstitutional denial of student group recognition to the Phi Beta Pi Society, a local campus sorority. Dixie State’s hangup? The fact that the sorority has Greek letters in its name, which it fears will give the university a “party school” image if it approves the group. After student founder Indigo Klabanoff pointed out to administrators that Dixie State didn’t actually have a policy prohibiting groups with Greek letters in their names, the school went so far as to retroactively amend its policies to prohibit them. Throughout the numerous attempts Phi Beta Pi made to gain recognition, Dixie State has displayed a striking immunity to basic constitutional principles. It seems unaware that how a group chooses to identify itself is among our most basic First Amendment rights. Administrators there also seem to think they can outright ban an alphabet. While Dixie State continues to defend its ban on Greek letters, Phi Beta Pi is forced to operate as an unofficial student group without many of the privileges and opportunities for funding its peer groups enjoy. To learn more, check out this FIRE video about the case. There is still time before the end of year for Dixie State to show it respects and trusts its students by recognizing Phi Beta Pi.

DePaul University

DePaul University has over the years proven itself so hostile to free speech that it has actually gone after a crime victim for uttering the names of those who wronged him. This January, Kristopher Del Campo, president of DePaul’s Young Americans for Freedom, was charged with multiple violations, including “Disorderly, Violent, Intimidating or Dangerous Behavior,” simply for publishing online the names of students who admitted to vandalizing his group’s pro-life display. Crime may not exactly pay at DePaul, but apparently you can count on the school to help you cover up the fact that you committed an offense. Other DePaul “greatest hits” over the years include discriminating against a drug policy reform group,shutting down an affirmative action protestsuspending a professor for his expression without a hearing, and forbidding a student group from protesting an appearance by Professor Ward Churchill. FIRE wrote to DePaul about the threat to free speech posed by its charges against Del Campo, but the school failed to respond and Del Campo was found responsible for all of his alleged violations of campus policy. DePaul should throw out its ruling against Del Campo if it doesn’t want to carry this latest stain on its reputation into 2014.

Central New Mexico Community College

In March, Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) shut down a student newspaper for publishing a “Sex Issue.” A statement by the college defending its blatantly unconstitutional censorship of the newspaper stated that “CNM felt the content was offensive and not appropriate for the educational mission of CNM.” After learning about this case, FIRE immediately wrote to CNM, demanding it reinstate the paper and renounce its shocking acts of censorship, which reportedly included removing the issue from newsstands around campus and confiscating them from students. After widespread public outcry from press freedom advocates and other student newspapers, CNM quickly relented and allowed the paper to continue publishing. But concerns remain. Some of the college’s faculty want the school to apologize for the incident and promise it will never happen again. It appears the college has yet to publicly make this promise—but the end of the year is as good a time as any!

Appalachian State University

Earlier this year, the Appalachian State University (ASU) Board of Trustees denied an appeal from Professor Jammie Price after she was disciplined for discussing controversial but relevant subjects in her spring 2012 “Introduction to Sociology” course. The discipline stemmed from in-class comments she made regarding then-recent allegations of sexual assault involving ASU athletes. Additionally, she was punished for screening a documentary about the effect of pornography on culture and relationships. Without a fair hearing, Price was suspended from teaching, banned from parts of campus, and prohibited from speaking publicly about her case. After an investigation, she was allowed to teach only under extensive oversight and with “sensitivity training.” Despite criticism of its handling of Price’s case from FIRE, the school’s Faculty Due Process Committee, and the Faculty Grievance Hearing Committee, ASU has refused to overturn its punishment of Price. As a result, ASU has sent a clear message to its professors that their jobs are safe only so long as they don’t discuss controversial subjects in their classrooms. Academic freedom remains in peril as long as Price’s unjust punishment is allowed to stand.

Troy University

In addition to the acts of censorship you have just read about, a shocking number of colleges and universities maintain written policies prohibiting protected speech—62%, according to our extensive research. These “speech codes” have been ruled unconstitutional by virtually every federal court to consider them, and they have a terrible chilling effect on campus free speech. FIRE’s award for the worst speech code of 2013 goes to Troy University, a public university in Alabama. At Troy, “harassment” is defined (PDF) as “any comments or conduct consisting of words or actions that are unwelcome or offensive to a person in relation to sex, race, age, religion, national origin, color, marital status, pregnancy, or disability or veteran’s status.” This policy prohibits an astonishing amount of constitutionally protected speech, including almost any expression of a political opinion that another person finds offensive. Who among us does not routinely encounter political opinions that are “offensive” to us in relation to our sex, race, religion, age, and so forth? Many universities maintain restrictive speech codes, but this one is both extraordinarily broad and directly implicates the kind of core political speech that is at the heart of what the First Amendment protects. For these reasons, it deserves special mention. Thankfully, Troy still has time to revise its overbroad policy before the new year.

University of North Carolina

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) demonstrated just how real a threat restrictive speech codes pose to free speech when it subjected student Landen Gambill to disciplinary charges for criticizing UNC’s handling of her sexual assault case. In response to Gambill’s constitutionally protected criticism, the UNC Honor Court charged her with violating a rule prohibiting “disruptive or intimidating behavior.” UNC was already well aware that its policy could be used to punish protected speech—nearly a year earlier, FIRE put UNC on notice of the policy’s unconstitutionality. Astonishingly, despite acknowledging that the policy “could be applied loosely and be problematic,” UNC administrator Winston Crisp declared that he was “comfortable” with it. Facing a retaliation claim from Gambill, outrage from FIRE, and attention from national news mediaUNC was forced to suspend the unconstitutional policy and dismiss the charges against Gambill. Though eventually vindicated, the fact that Gambill ever faced potential expulsion for engaging in classic protected expression is unfathomable and sadly preventable—had the school only listened to FIRE earlier.

Departments of Education and Justice

While not a college or university, back in May the Departments of Education and Justice mandated an unconstitutional speech code for all colleges receiving federal funding in what was arguably the biggest free-speech-on-campus story of the year. The speech code came as a result of an end to the agencies’ year-long joint investigation into the University of Montana’s (UM’s) practices and policies regarding sexual misconduct. The investigation was certainly warranted—UM had failed to respond to reports of sexual assault by football players—but the agreement the federal agencies reached with the university presented a serious threat to freedom of expression. Specifically, the agreement defined sexual harassment in a shockingly broad way, prohibiting “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including speech. Making matters worse, the agreement was labeled a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country,” meaning that if schools didn’t adopt the new definition, they risked losing their federal funding. As free speech advocates know, overly broad harassment codes have long been the tool used on campus to censor all sorts of unpopular speech. Only after FIRE organized a group of civil liberties advocates, like the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others, to sound the alarm over the summer did the agencies back away from the “blueprint.” But the fight isn’t over. The agencies backed away from the blueprint only in a letter to FIRE and have yet to notify colleges across the country of their position. Until they do, the blueprint still remains a threat to free speech on virtually every campus in the country.

Schools: Dixie State University Appalachian State University State University of New York – Oswego Troy University University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Harvard University DePaul University University of Alabama Cases: Departments of Education and Justice: National Requirement for Unconstitutional Speech Codes