Every January, FIRE staffers convene to compile our list of the previous year’s worst colleges for free speech. Reviewing the lowlights of the year reminds each of us that campus censors can be pretty creative. Just when you think you’ve seen everything — and over FIRE’s 20-year history, we’ve seen a lot — some enterprising college trots out a new way to clamp down on unwanted, unpopular, or simply dissenting speech.
And this year’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech list has a little something for everyone. No matter your political allegiances or partisan commitments, we’re willing to bet that some of you might find yourself uncomfortably sympathetic to the censors at some point reading the list.
As you’ll discover, targets of this year’s censors include an altered American flag, a sex educator, a fraternity skit, a couple of student newspapers, and two professors who testified on behalf of a former student accused of sexually assaulting a minor. So we fully anticipate that at least a few rage-tweets will soon be headed our way, as some outraged readers ask us how we can possibly stand up for that kind of expression.
But hey, that’s part of the job when you work for a principled and proudly nonpartisan organization like FIRE. Defending students and faculty whose speech is protected by the First Amendment — regardless of the viewpoint expressed or the speaker’s identity — means just about everyone gets mad at you sooner or later.
Just like years prior, this year’s “worst-of-the-worst” list is presented in no particular order, and both public and private colleges are featured. Public colleges and universities are bound by the First Amendment. Private colleges on this list are not required by the Constitution to respect student and faculty speech rights, but explicitly promise to do so.
We’re pleased to present this year’s “winners”: FIRE’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.)
You can’t “eminent domain” away students’ free speech rights. But this college tried.
Eastern New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was an easy choice for our 2018 list of worst colleges for free speech. 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. And here it is.
To be clear, “eminent domain” — the power of the government to take private land for public use — is a legal concept with no bearing on the situation whatsoever. Rather than chalk it all up to a misunderstanding and pledge to revisit its policies, RPI’s administration cited a policy that it claimed requires students to get “prior authorization” before they “distribute materials on campus.” (It doesn’t.)
RPI has a long history of relying on poorly-written policies to censor speech whenever controversy arises. It censored critics of the Iraq War, and critics of the critics of the Iraq War, and in both 2016 and 2017 it went to absurd lengths to prevent students from holding peaceful demonstrations or posting flyers critical of the administration. How far? Administrators erected a fence across the campus to keep demonstrators out of sight of a black-tie fundraiser, hired the local police department to videotape demonstrators, and instituted bogus disciplinary actions against students who spoke to the media at the demonstration.
In 2018, RPI could have taken the advice of the local newspaper, which opined that RPI’s administration had “some soul-searching to do when it comes to quashing student speech it disagrees with.” It could have taken stock of how its often-incomprehensible policies had led it into so many controversies and taken steps to amend those policies.
RPI consciously chose not to do so, declaring a preference for a “controlled environment” over student expression. That’s at odds with RPI’s public promises of freedom of expression and contrary to the standards of its accreditation, which require that RPI show that it both “possesses and demonstrates” a commitment to freedom of expression. RPI does neither.
Syracuse University (Syracuse, N.Y.)
A private, satirical fraternity roast leaves some students charred by the university’s speech codes.
Given Syracuse University’s checkered history with protecting students rights, it’s no surprise SU once again found itself back on this list. This time, it’s for suspending the students of the Theta Tau engineering fraternity chapter for a private, satirical skit roasting their fellow members.
Weeks after the skit was performed, without any complaints from the involved students, a recording of the skit was leaked to the student newspaper, which publicized the derogatory language jokingly used by the students. Campus outrage ensued, prompting SU to find the students responsible for violating its many speech codes over the words used in the skit.
This is the same school that has, over the last decade, expelled an education student for his Facebook posts and investigated a law student for his satirical blog. Not to mention it threatened to censor students’ Halloween costumes and continues to maintain an increasing number of severely restrictive “red light” speech codes, ready to be marshaled against outspoken students. Ironically, SU has the First Amendment emblazoned across one of its buildings.
But, in this case, the punished Theta Tau fraternity members fought back against SU’s censorship, launching state and federal lawsuits against the school for violating its explicit, written promises to protect student free speech. 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 students plan to appeal, lending hope that SU will finally be held accountable for flagrantly violating its students’ expressive freedoms.
Georgetown University Qatar (Doha, Qatar)
This satellite campus censored the debating union’s debate about God.
Debating God? Not at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar.
This satellite campus has followed in the footsteps of its U.S.-based counterpart in promising free expression but failing to deliver. In October, the university announced the cancellation of its debating union’s scheduled discussion on the topic: “This house believes that major religions should portray God as a woman.” The debate proved controversial within Qatar, prompting the hashtag “Georgetown insults God” on social media.
In justifying its censorship, GU-Q initially claimed “the event was not sanctioned by the University and did not follow the appropriate policies for activity approval.” However, a statement the next day suggested that the content of the debate was the reason for its cancellation.
The university’s Office of Communications wrote, in part, that a “recently planned installment of the Pardon the Interruption student debate series at Georgetown University-Qatar (GU-Q) was canceled after it failed to follow the appropriate approval processes and created a risk to safety and security of our community. GU-Q is committed to the free and open exchange of ideas, while encouraging civil dialogue that respects the laws of Qatar” (emphases added). Notably, Qatar maintains a blasphemy law, which could conceivably be violated by a campus debate about portraying God as a woman.
In response to growing concerns about the threats satellite campuses can pose to free speech and academic freedom in U.S. higher education, FIRE’s “Commitment to Campus Free Expression at Home and Abroad” campaign calls on universities to put student and faculty rights first in existing and future partnerships abroad. You can pledge your support by signing the commitment.
University of Wisconsin System (Madison, Wis.)
A university chancellor is punished for inviting a sex educator to Free Speech Week.
Conversations about sex might just be too hot to handle for University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross.
In November, UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow invited Nina Hartley — a nurse, sex educator, and former adult film star — to campus for a lecture as part of his school’s Free Speech Week programming. Her talk about the adult media industry was reportedly a success. That is, until Gow received a formal letter of reprimand from Cross for inviting Hartley to campus.
Admitting to “personal underlying moral concerns,” Cross stated that he was “deeply disappointed by [Gow’s] decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the La Crosse campus to lecture students about sex and the adult entertainment industry.” Cross paid lip-service to Gow’s “commitment to freedom of expression and public discourse,” but nevertheless concluded that “as Chancellor, [Gow] need[s] to exercise better judgment when dealing with matters such as these.”
Making his bizarrely illiberal scolding still worse, however, Cross imposed financial consequences on Gow, informing him that his “poor judgment” and “lack of responsible oversight” would negatively impact the Board of Regents’ consideration of his salary moving forward. What’s more, Cross launched an audit of Gow’s discretionary fund and added the reprimand to Gow’s personnel file.
All this for daring, as Gow later wrote, 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.”
Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.)
If you promise free speech, you better deliver. Censoring the student newspaper is not delivering.
In 2016, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., proclaimed that the university “promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.” What, then, do we make of repeated efforts by the school to censor its student newspaper, the Liberty Champion?
On Aug. 16, WORLD magazine issued a report alleging repeated efforts to silence the Liberty Champion that date back years. WORLD highlighted a 2016 situation when Falwell reportedly cut sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column criticizing President Donald Trump for saying he “grab[s] [women] by the pussy” during a leaked recording from a 2005 filming of “Access Hollywood.”
The censorship continued into 2018 when writer Jack Panyard’s article about unmarried pregnant students was cut before publication. It was his second article to be censored that year. Dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content Bruce Kirk warned Panyard that Liberty intended to restructure the Champion and that Panyard’s position of editor-in-chief would no longer exist, leading four members of the paper to resign. Kirk also reportedly told the Champion’s new staffers:
“Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. … Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?”
WORLD also reported that students on the newspaper staff who receive scholarships are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement conditioning their scholarships to their “full and continuous compliance” with newspaper rules. Further, they cannot comment on social media “about any publication of the Liberty Champion or its affiliated communication services.”
FIRE wrote to the university last August to call on Falwell to extend to student journalists the free expression he claims Liberty promotes. Liberty is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, and its policies do not offer freedom of expression to its students. But if Falwell issues a press release proclaiming the university “promotes free expression,” he should deliver — lest students be bamboozled into spending $30,000 a year on an education they thought promised them certain basic rights.
Alabama A&M University (Huntsville, Ala.)
Out of the 466 colleges FIRE rates, this one has the most policies that substantially restrict free speech.
Almost 30 percent of colleges in FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report earn our worst, “red light” rating for maintaining at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts protected speech. But no other school in our database maintains more of these policies than Alabama A&M University — it has five.
What’s causing Alabama A&M’s red light status? Harassment policies.
Colleges are legally obligated to respond to discriminatory harassment of their students. However, Alabama A&M maintains harassment policies that define harassment more broadly than the controlling Supreme Court standard, making constitutionally protected expression punishable.
In one of its five red light policies, Alabama A&M says harassment includes “negative stereotyping,” “[i]nsulting … comments or gestures,” and comments that are merely “related to an individual’s age, race, gender, color, religion, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation.”
If students can be punished for any and all subjectively negative or insulting comments, or even comments that are perceived as relating to a particular identity, a great deal of constitutionally protected speech is subject to investigation or punishment.
Another policy, which regulates expression through the university computing resources, tells students that “[h]arassing others” by sending “annoying” or “offensive” messages is prohibited. But emails that are subjectively annoying or offensive don’t necessarily constitute unlawful harassment, and this policy’s broad prohibitions are likely to have a chilling effect on expression.
We invite Alabama A&M to work with FIRE to eliminate its restrictive speech codes — and pass the unenviable title of the school with the most red light policies to another institution.
University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kan.)
Politicians pressure a university to censor a flag art display. After initially resisting, the university folded.
In July, FIRE released a report on the numerous cases of art censorship we’ve fought against in our 20-year history. As if on cue, the day after our report was released, Kansas politicians demanded that the University of Kansas censor an art display.
On July 11, KU officials removed an outdoor flag art display that appeared on campus after Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and other politicians demanded that it be “taken down immediately,” arguing that the “disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable.” Artist Josephine Meckseper, who created the flag, described her art as “a collage of an American flag and one of my dripped paintings which resembles the contours of the United States.” She noted it was meant “to reflect a deeply polarized country.” If only she knew how polarizing her art would become …
Although KU officials initially defended the art display, they soon caved and moved the flag to an indoor space. That’s when FIRE, the ACLU of Kansas, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to the university to demand that officials restore the artwork to its original and intended outdoor location. The coalition reminded the university that art can often inspire emotional reactions — one might say that is its purpose — but that as a governmental institution, KU cannot “prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
In the end, the art finished its run inside KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, a signal to would-be censors that an angry phone call might be all it takes to censor art at the University of Kansas.
And, lest readers forget, the risk for censorship at KU isn’t limited to controversial art. In 2014, the Kansas Board of Regents approved one of the most restrictive social media policies in the country for its faculty at all member institutions, including KU. The policy is still on the books today, and it remains a looming threat to faculty free speech rights.
University of North Alabama (Florence, Ala.)
Staff at the University of North Alabama’s Flor-Ala student newspaper hold copies of a Nov. 2018 edition featuring a blank front page in protest of UNA admins alleged censorship attempts. (Credit: Matt McKean/TimesDaily)
Retaliating against a student newspaper for critical coverage? Not good. A gag order on faculty speaking to the press without prior permission? See ya on the “10 Worst” list!
The University of North Alabama’s administration boasts that there’s no “smoking gun” proving that it removed a student newspaper adviser over unwelcome coverage. But UNA’s alibi doesn’t check out and a witness on the scene disputes the administration’s story.
UNA’s student newspaper, The Flor-Ala, wanted to know why a university vice president had suddenly resigned and a professor was banned from campus, so they asked for the personnel files under Alabama’s public records laws. When the administration balked, the Flor-Ala wrote about the denial. A week later, an “angry” provost met with the student editors and the newspaper’s adviser, Scott Morris.
Ten days after that meeting, the provost informed Morris that the required qualifications for his adviser position would be changing. Moving forward, the student newspaper’s adviser would have to have a Ph.D. — which, coincidentally, Morris (who has 30 years of professional newsroom experience) does not have.
Responding to accusations that it was retaliating over the newspaper’s coverage, UNA claimed that it had been planning this change in the job qualifications since 2014, sharing emails it said exonerated the university. But the head of the communications department from 2009 to 2015 — who certainly would have been involved in any such discussions — said that was news to him. As for the exonerating emails? They show a UNA dean talking about making changes to the adviser’s role in the wake of a 2015 conflict over content in the Flor-Ala. This censorious course of conduct earned UNA a well-deserved censure from the College Media Association, a protest edition from the student newspaper, a letter from FIRE, and a place on this year’s list.
But that’s not the only chill in the forecast at UNA. The university’s public relations administrators also imposed an unwritten, vague policy directing staff and faculty to have their interactions with the media “vetted” by the administration. That abridges the rights of faculty members to comment on matters of public concern in a private capacity or on subjects of their expertise, and it frustrates the ability of journalists — students or not — to speak with sources.
Plymouth State University (Plymouth, N.H.)
A university punishes two professors for speaking out and performing a civic duty.
If you think serving as an expert witness and offering a letter of support for a former student in a criminal sentencing hearing is an important exercise of civic duty, you’re not alone. But Plymouth State University thinks otherwise. It fired one professor and disciplined another for doing just that.
Last July, following a criminal trial, Exeter High School guidance counselor and former PSU student Kristie Torbick pled guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. At her sentencing hearing, the court received letters of support asking for leniency, including a letter authored by PSU Professor Emeritus Michael Fischler. Another PSU professor, Dr. Nancy Strapko, served as a paid expert witness in the case and sent a letter to Torbick’s attorney attesting to Torbick’s remorse and progress in therapy. These professors’ actions — and the ensuing outrage over their seeming support of a convicted child predator — did not sit well with PSU, which quickly fired Strapko and required Fischler to complete Title IX training before teaching again.
You might recall that in 2014, FIRE was pleased to award PSU our “green light” rating. It’s an honor reserved only for those colleges and universities that eliminated all of their speech codes. On paper, Plymouth State was fully compliant with its First Amendment obligations as a public university — and it remains so today.
But, as FIRE often reminds administrators, policies are only as meaningful as they prove to be in practice. We celebrate our green light schools, but we’ll also call them to account if they fail to meet the spirit and letter of their published commitments to free expression. And that’s what we’re doing here.
PSU’s punishment of these professors shows a disturbing disregard for their First Amendment rights as private citizens to speak about matters of public concern. Additionally, PSU demonstrates a disdain for a citizen’s right to assist courts in adjudicating criminal matters when called upon — a solemn civic responsibility that forms the backbone of any functional system of justice.
By letting the court of public opinion dictate who may express themselves and remain employed at PSU, the university has chilled the expressive rights of the PSU educational community, to the detriment of the criminal justice system and in contravention of its obligations under the First Amendment.
Dixie State University (St. George, Utah)
It pressured a professor to sign away his free speech rights. It barred student press from public meetings. And that’s just this year …
Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, made headlines this spring for abruptly firing tenured music professor Ken Peterson, who was terminated along with another faculty member for merely discussing a colleague’s tenure bid. Inside Higher Ed reported widespread concerns among Dixie State faculty that the charges were trumped up to oust the professors for political reasons.
In July, the Utah System of Higher Education ruled Peterson should be reinstated. And while Dixie State said it “wholeheartedly supported” USHE’s decision, the university subsequently presented Peterson with a wildly unreasonable “Last Chance Contract” as a condition to reinstatement that would have stripped him of practically all his speech and academic freedom rights. Academe Blog’s John K. Wilson called Dixie State’s move “one of the most extreme violations of academic freedom and free speech that I’ve ever seen.”
Peterson refused to sign, and the Utah State Senate audited the university to determine whether the school violated any of its tenure-related policies.
If that weren’t enough, Dixie State is also in a protracted fight with its student newspaper over access to public meetings and records.
Student journalists at Dixie State have asked the Utah Attorney General’s office to force the university to comply with the state’s Open Meetings Act, which mandates access to faculty senate and student government meetings. Yet, Dixie State contends such meetings are exempt from the act.
Dixie State has long been on FIRE’s radar. FIRE sponsored a lawsuit against the university in 2015 over censorship of student flyers and confining student speech to a “free speech zone.” The university ultimately settled that case, agreeing to revise several campus policies, provide training to administrators about the new speech policies, and pay $50,000 in damages and attorney’s fees. Dixie State also made our 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech list in 2013 for banning fraternities and sororities from using the Greek alphabet, amid the university’s concerns over earning a reputation as a “party school.”
With its second appearance on FIRE’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech list, Dixie State has earned a reputation as a school that fails to respect student and faculty rights.
Looking for more?
This is FIRE’s eighth year compiling the “worst-of-the-worst” list. Read our past lists (2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011) and sign up for FIRE’s mailing list to stay up-to-date on breaking news in campus censorship.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a First Amendment charity, effectively and decisively defends the fundamental rights of tens of thousands of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses while simultaneously reaching millions on and off campus through education, outreach, and college reform efforts.