Since 2011, FIRE has named and shamed 65 individual colleges and universities as America’s worst for free speech. Some — we’re looking at you Harvard, DePaul, and Syracuse — are regulars and have appeared four or five times. Others have slunk away in embarrassment after being listed. But all have one thing in common: They had the chance to do the right thing when it came to free speech, but chose otherwise.
This year’s list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech includes a college that fired a professor over an innocuous joke on social media, another that allowed its student government to flatly reject a student club because of its conservative beliefs, one that unilaterally canceled a faculty-organized lecture, and a college that suspended a librarian for curating a historical display highlighting the university’s own photos of its racist past.
As in previous years, FIRE’s 2020 “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 constitutionally required to respect student and faculty speech rights, but explicitly promise to do so.
This year, we also bestow a special distinction upon Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. FIRE has criticized RPI’s censorship so much in recent years that those three letters are starting to rub off of our keyboards. For ruining our computer equipment and maintaining a years-long rap sheet of flagrant censorship, FIRE awards RPI with the Lifetime Censorship Award — reserved for a college or university that threatens the free speech rights of its students and faculty so often that it deserves individual infamy. We couldn’t think of a more worthy recipient than the Sensational Sentinels of Censorship of Troy, New York.
With this dubious distinction, RPI joins fellow perennial censor DePaul University, which earned the award in 2018.
Without further ado, FIRE is (dis)pleased to present the 2020 edition of the 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech:
Babson College (Wellesley, Mass.)
Babson fired a professor over a private, satirical post on Facebook — demonstrating that it understands jokes as much as it understands free expression.
Babson College clearly can’t take a joke — which had serious consequences for professor Asheen Phansey. For that, the private Massachusetts school lands like a rotten tomato on this year’s 10 Worst list.
On Jan. 7, Phansey posted on his private Facebook page a joke response to President Donald Trump’s threat to bomb 52 Iranian sites, including cultural sites:
“In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomeni should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb. Um… Mall of America? …Kardashian residence?”
After the post was shared by a local gossip blog, Babson administrators suspended Phansey pending an “investigation,” and said the college “condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence” and was “cooperating with local, state and federal authorities.” Less than a day later, Babson concluded its “thorough investigation” and fired him.
FIRE wrote to Babson on Jan. 9, explaining that Phansey’s post was clearly political hyperbole about an issue of public concern. In political rhetoric, figurative and hyperbolic language have been familiar tools for centuries, and Phansey’s post was quite obviously a criticism — not an endorsement — of threats of violence, mixed with snark about American culture. Even after stripping Phansey’s post of its obvious intent, it still would not constitute a “true threat” or “incitement” that would render such a joke to be unprotected speech.
At a private school like Babson that makes promises of free expression, a joke like Phansey’s could ignite a range of acceptable responses from the university. Firing him is not one of them.
Jones College (Ellisville, Miss.)
Campus police said a student should have been ‘smarter’ than to exercise his First Amendment rights. He responded with a lawsuit.
When the Department of Justice compares a college’s policies to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” it’s fairly certain to appear on FIRE’s 10 worst list.
Last spring, administrators and campus police at Jones College twice stopped student Mike Brown from exercising his free speech rights when he tried to recruit fellow students for a campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, telling him he needed the school’s explicit permission to speak on campus.
On one occasion, in April, Brown and two others tried to engage with students by holding up a sign inviting them to give their opinions about legalizing marijuana. But no sooner did they get into a conversation with a few students than a staff member called campus police. Brown and another student were taken to the police chief’s office while their friend, a non-student, was escorted to his car and told to leave immediately and not return, or he’d face arrest. Back in the police chief’s office, according to Brown, the chief told him he was “smarter than” to engage in expressive activity on campus without permission from the school.
Two months earlier, Brown and a friend had set up a “free speech ball” — an oversized beach ball — on which students could write messages of their choice while Brown and his friend talked to them about free speech and YAL. However, their fun was ended when an administrator called campus police and told them they were not allowed to have the ball on campus without permission from the school.
In September, Brown filed a First Amendment lawsuit, with FIRE’s help, arguing that Jones College’s policies deny students their free speech rights. The policies require administrative approval, at least three days in advance, for any “meetings or gatherings” on campus. That’s when the Department of Justice jumped into the case, expressing the federal government’s view that the policies are unconstitutional.
“Such extreme preconditions to speech might not be out of place in Oceania, the fictional dystopian superstate in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the DOJ wrote in its statement. “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, however, ensures that preconditions like these have no place in the United States of America.” We couldn’t have said it any better.
Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.)
Harvard administrators’ faces should be crimson with embarrassment after dismissing a faculty dean for joining a criminal defense team, blacklisting its own students, and more.
Deemed “Kafka on the Charles” by one of FIRE’s earliest press releases, Harvard has continued to cover itself in shame when it comes to free expression — or really, freedom of any kind — on its campus.
The college’s decision to bring back the blacklist for students who join single-gender clubs, even off campus, attracted wide attention over the last couple of years, especially given the university’s comedically corrupt process for adopting the new rules (and the fact that the now-ex-president who endorsed them was herself simultaneously on the board of the all-female Bryn Mawr College).
In spring 2019, though, Harvard took disappointment to a new level when it relieved law professor Ronald Sullivan of his duties as faculty dean of Winthrop House. His offense? This practicing, high-powered lawyer’s agreement to join Harvey Weinstein’s criminal defense team for a few months. This reportedly made students feel “unsafe” because of his residence in their dorm.
The fact that Sullivan represented other high-profile clients in controversial situations — including, for example, football player and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez — apparently made no difference. Politics had spoken, and the first African-American faculty dean in Harvard’s nearly 400-year history was unceremoniously dumped.
And just a few months ago, Harvard implemented a new speaker policy requiring that events deemed to involve “high profile, controversial speakers, or VIP guests” have a neutral moderator in place, ostensibly to prevent disruptions. Unfortunately, the policy is riddled with ambiguities, leading the Harvard Crimson student newspaper to label the policy “troublingly vague.”
Harvard, one of the world’s leading universities, surely has the intellectual capacity to write a better, fairer policy. The fact that it didn’t can only mean it didn’t want to.
For this and more, Harvard earns its spot on this list — for the fifth time.
University of Scranton (Scranton, Pa.)
“Yikes, nope, denied”: University stands by student government that denied recognition to a conservative student group.
This fall, several dozen students at the University of Scranton sought to found a registered chapter of conservative group Turning Point USA on campus. They almost immediately faced obstacles.
Before the students even presented their proposal to the student government, the student government president posted on social media implying that, in certain cases, the student government could review a proposed student organization and say “yikes, nope, denied” because of the group’s viewpoint. He subsequently recused himself from the student government’s review of TPUSA’s application.
However, when the students presented their application to the rest of the student government, they faced several hours of questioning about, among other things, their viewpoint, affiliation with national organizations, and whether they planned to host “stigmatizing” events on campus.
While the student government initially indicated their application would be approved, it was ultimately rejected.
FIRE wrote to Scranton President Scott Pilarz to express our concern about the student government’s obvious viewpoint discrimination and to demand that the university recognize the group and its students’ rights to freely associate around shared ideas. Scranton’s response was dismissive — the university maintained that TPUSA did not receive enough support in the student government to become a recognized organization. FIRE wrote again to point out that this was not a sufficient response given the clear evidence of viewpoint discrimination, and demanded that the university identify a viewpoint-neutral reason why TPUSA was rejected. We did not receive a subsequent response.
This blatant example of viewpoint discrimination leaves the TPUSA students without official recognition, and leaves the university with an obligation to explain why it ignored — or abandoned — its promises of free expression.
Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vt.)
Administrators unilaterally canceled a faculty-organized lecture by a Polish scholar and politician — but one political science class invited him to speak anyway.
Just hours before controversial Polish scholar and politician Ryszard Legutko was set to speak at Middlebury College last April, campus administrators made national news by unilaterally canceling the event, citing unsubstantiated “safety risks.” In doing so, they denied a willing audience the opportunity to hear Legutko’s arguments and critics from challenging him, either through peaceful protest or pointed questions.
The decision was strongly rebuked by many on campus (and by FIRE) as violating Middlebury’s free speech and academic freedom values. One political science seminar even went so far as to invite Legutko to address their class that very same day, which he did, without problems.
Unfortunately, this was not Middlebury’s first or last time at the center of a free speech controversy. Many readers will recall what happened in March 2017 when a campus appearance by scholar Charles Murray led to violent protests, an injured professor, and a canceled lecture. More recently, a student was reportedly notified that he was being investigated for violating the college’s “Demonstrations and Protests Policy” and “Respectful Behavior Policy” after he engaged in heated questioning of CIA recruiters at an on-campus event. (The college quickly backed down and has since updated its demonstrations policy, to its credit.)
However, the unilateral cancelation of Legutko’s speech was one of the most troubling infringements on student and faculty free speech and open inquiry rights we saw last year. Middlebury now has an opportunity to make up for its past fumbles: Charles Murray was invited by students to again speak on campus on March 31. So far the college is allowing the event to move forward. But, as we’ve seen, that can change just hours before the event. Until we see clear evidence that these infringements won’t happen again, Middlebury finds itself on this most inauspicious of lists.
Long Island University Post (Brookville, N.Y.)
Administrators at this university lack ‘common sense’ when it comes to student rights.
Last spring, Long Island University Post senior Jake Gutowitz was busy preparing for graduation, finishing classes, and studying for finals. His university, on the other hand, was busy investigating him for alleged possession of “forbidden flyers.”
It was only three days before graduation when Gutowitz was notified that he was under investigation for allegedly possessing and distributing these forbidden flyers during the previous December — some five months earlier.
These flyers, which had been appearing on campus throughout the school year, were labeled “Common Sense” à la Thomas Paine and contained parodies and poems criticizing LIU Post and its administrators, particularly President Kimberly Cline.
According to an administrator, an “anonymous student” reported they saw Gutowitz post the flyers on campus and reported him to on-campus safety officers. At his investigatory meeting, Gutowitz denied any involvement and was told he could expect a letter resolving the investigation by the end of the semester. He successfully graduated and left LIU Post, but he never received that letter.
LIU Post’s decision to investigate protected speech — and its failure to resolve such an investigation — has a lasting chilling effect on student expression.
FIRE wrote to LIU Post, asking that the university cease its practice of investigating students for protected expression, which contradicts its promise to “support the rights of individuals, clubs and organizations … to free speech and peaceful assembly.” Like Gutowitz, we never received a response.
This is not the first time FIRE has written to LIU Post about the chilling effect these investigations have on student speech. The university’s disappointing responses (or lack thereof) earn it a spot on this list for the first time.
University of Connecticut (Storrs, Conn.)
Utter an offensive word to nobody in particular, go directly to jail.
Among students, there is a common dare: one says a taboo word, the other repeats it a bit louder, and the participants see who is brave — or foolish — enough to say the word the loudest. Usually, that word is “penis” — which is what two students at the University of Connecticut started with while walking through a parking lot late one night.
A student in a dormitory overheard them talking in the parking lot and recorded a video of the pair. When he listened closely to the recording, he realized that the students in the parking lot had switched to a far more offensive word: “nigger.”
After the video went viral, campus police set out to find out who was responsible for uttering an offensive word not directed at anyone in particular. Police dug through surveillance video to track the students back from a pizza joint, analyzed Wi-Fi data to determine who connected to campus internet networks at the time, and pulled up logs of the cards used to access campus buildings. When they finally identified the offending speakers, they charged them with a criminal offense under a century-old statute outlawing race-based “ridicule” in commercial advertisements. (Connecticut police have long since ignored the text of the law and now abuse the statute to arrest the homeless, mentally ill, or people who direct race-based insults at police officers.)
UConn subsequently brought student disciplinary charges against the pair, ignoring a longstanding federal court order prohibiting the university from imposing hate speech policies in violation of the First Amendment. A First Amendment lawsuit brought by the students remains pending.
Not to be outdone, the president of Western Connecticut State University pledged criminal charges and expulsion for any student responsible for “It’s OK To Be White” and “Islam is right about women” flyers. Censorship, it appears, is contagious.
Syracuse University (Syracuse, N.Y.)
Rejecting a conservative student organization over its ideology and punishing all fraternities for someone else’s alleged act, Syracuse lands on our list … again.
Syracuse began the year by denying recognition to Young Americans for Freedom for blatantly viewpoint discriminatory reasons. Finding the group’s ideology “inflammatory,” the university refused to grant it recognition unless it abolished its requirement that prospective members believe in what the group stands for: conservative values.
In our Feb. 22 letter, FIRE asked Syracuse to explain why it deemed this requirement “unreasonable and not inclusive,” despite allowing every other student group to set membership criteria.
After starting off the year targeting a political student group, Syracuse closed the year by suspending all fraternity activities for the rest of the semester in response to an alleged racial incident. The only issue is that the university admitted that most, if not all, of the student groups had nothing to do with what happened. That’s right — the alleged use of a racial slur by a non-fraternity member prompted Syracuse to condemn all fraternities, even minority ones. On Nov. 22, FIRE called on SU to end this collective punishment of innocent students. Instead, they ran out the clock by keeping the suspension in place — and ran headlong onto our list.
Syracuse is no stranger to blithely disregarding its students’ rights. Also last year, it suspended students of its Theta Tau engineering fraternity chapter for a private, satirical skit roasting their fellow members, embroiling the university in litigation that continues to this very day. This should come as no surprise considering SU investigated a law student for his satirical blog in 2010, and expelled an education student for his Facebook posts in 2012, all while maintaining several severely restrictive speech codes.
As the new decade dawns on this university, with its buildings emblazoned with the First Amendment and motto “Knowledge crowns those who seek her,” FIRE hopes this is the year the four-time recipient of this shameful designation finally respects the rights of its students. If not, it might just earn itself a Lifetime Censorship Award.
Doane University (Crete, Neb.)
A faculty librarian displayed the university’s own historical photos — and got suspended.
Doane University, a small liberal arts college in Nebraska, made one of the biggest censorship blunders of the year.
In April, the school investigated and suspended faculty librarian Melissa Gomis for curating a historical photo display, entitled “Parties of the Past,” consisting of photos selected from the university’s own archival photo collection. The display — intended to inspire discussion about the ongoing national debate surrounding offensive Halloween and party costumes, as well as a national effort to confront the history of blackface in universities’ yearbooks — included two university-owned photos of Doane students wearing blackface at a 1926 masquerade party.
After a student complained, Doane placed Gomis on leave and investigated her under a ludicrous charge of “discriminatory harassment.” (Discriminatory harassment, for the record, requires a pattern of severe, targeted conduct that was obviously absent here.)
In May, FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a joint letter to Doane asking the school to clarify whether it actually honors the strong promises of academic freedom it makes to faculty.
Doane’s lawyer responded that the university “does not and will not comment on internal employee issues.” However, Doane President Jacque Carter sent a campus-wide email discussing the matter in detail, and Doane administrators commented extensively to local media, faulting the display for lacking “appropriate educational context.”
Gomis has since been reinstated, but Doane failed to meaningfully respond to the broader issues implicated here.
Faculty at institutions that promise academic freedom must be free to make a variety of pedagogical choices, including how to discuss, view, or display certain material, even when that material may shock or offend others. Doane is also required to comply with its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which requires accredited institutions be “committed to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.”
Librarians like Melissa Gomis play a crucial role in that pursuit.
Portland State University (Portland, Ore.)
After campus police canceled a socialist group’s meeting when an uninvited “Patriot Prayer” leader said he’d show up, officers stood by while a single protester, armed with a cowbell, shut down a College Republicans meeting.
In polarized Portland, two incidents illustrate that censorship knows no ideological boundaries, as pressure from both the right and left led Portland State University’s police to censor socialist and conservative students alike.
In January 2019, the Portland State International Socialist Organization, a student group, planned to hold a meeting about capitalism, climate change, and socialism. Joey Gibson, the non-student founder of the conservative “Patriot Prayer” group, took to Facebook to announce that he would show up uninvited, hoping to make the students answer for “antifa.”
This led campus police to cancel the meeting, later claiming that the students agreed to the cancelation. (They had not.)
If Portland State’s police learned anything, it was the wrong lesson. In March, a protester armed with a cowbell filibustered a meeting of the College Republicans, which had convened to hear a conservative blogger speak about the Second Amendment. Four campus police officers stood by while the protester prevented the meeting from taking place.
“We want to deplatform you,” said the protester. “We want you to stop fucking talking.” And Portland State’s police didn’t so much as ask him to stop, notwithstanding a university policy barring “disruptive or disorderly conduct” which “interferes with the use and enjoyment of the facilities, including … [n]oise that is disturbing to others.”
Their excuse? They were concerned that it might “escalate a potentially unsafe situation” to intervene during an “event advocating gun rights.” To protect and swerve.
LIFETIME CENSORSHIP AWARD
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.)
After years of censoring its student critics, this school decided to clamp down on flyering, making its “controlled environment” official.
For years, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have criticized administrators over attempts to wrest control of the century-old Rensselaer Union — efforts students say are “shifting control of the Rensselaer Union from the students” and toward the administration of RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson.
At every opportunity, RPI administrators have responded to its student critics with reflexive censorship. Security officers and staff members have been repeatedly captured on camera tearing down “Save the Union” flyers before prospective students, parents, or donors visit campus, and recordings capture security officers explaining that on “orders from the top,” they had to remove flyers critical of the administration on “Accepted Students Day.” They’ve required students to ask permission to hold peaceful demonstrations, repeatedly denied permission when asked, and erected fences to keep student demonstrators out of sight of a black-tie fundraiser. Also in attendance? A phalanx of local police officers hired to stand guard and videotape students — surveillance later used by administrators to identify peaceful demonstrators.
And when students handed out flyers in a dorm, they were charged with “solicitation”; when they handed out flyers on a sidewalk, security officers stopped them and told them they needed permission to hand anything out — a claim later repeated by RPI’s lawyer, who solemnly explained that the administration had such a policy, creating a “controlled environment” to prevent “the NRA” or “politicians” from handing out flyers on campus.
This, Jackson said, was RPI treating student speech with a “fairly light hand.” This lengthy track record earned criticism not only from students and faculty, but also from the local newspaper, which implored RPI’s administration to do some “soul-searching” about its approach to student freedom of expression. It also drew criticism from civil liberties advocates like FIRE and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which pointed out that RPI was enforcing policies — those requiring permission to hand out flyers — that didn’t actually exist.
One would think that RPI’s administration, wary of its deserved reputation for censorship, would look for at least symbolic ways to improve its students’ rights — to match its laudable declarations that students will be “free to support causes by orderly means, including peaceful assembly.” Instead, RPI’s administration wrote the policy it falsely claimed already existed. Now, if a student at RPI wants to hand out an open letter to another student, they can do so only if they’re part of a recognized student organization (unofficial movements like the “Save the Union” campaign don’t count) and only if they get advanced permission from RPI’s administration.
For its unashamed, years-long record of censoring its critics and utter disinterest in protecting students’ rights, FIRE awards RPI’s administration with the Lifetime Censorship Award, joining fellow perennial censor DePaul University.
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