2020 College Free Speech Rankings: 45 miles makes a big difference for some students

November 4, 2020

A few weeks ago FIRE held a faculty webinar where I reviewed the main findings of our 2020 College Free Speech Rankings and then took questions from the attendees. One of the unanswered questions was about a school specific comparison: the University of Utah, a flagship state university, and Brigham Young University, a private religious institution. Both of these colleges are located in Utah; BYU is in Provo, which is about 45 miles south of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. This post compares the student survey results obtained from those two colleges for our 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, an analysis that finds clear gender and ideological differences between students on the two campuses in how they experience the free speech culture on campus. 

Overview


In the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings the University of Utah sits 20th overall, while BYU is ranked 49th. As can be seen in the table below, the University of Utah does better on each component of the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings than BYU does, with the exception of tolerance, and its student body is considerably less conservative.  

University of Utah

Brigham Young University

Overall ranking 20th 49th
Openness ranking 18th 36th
Tolerance ranking 13th 3rd
Administrative support ranking 45th 52nd
Self-expression ranking 28th 39th
FIRE spotlight rating Red Warning
% conservative 23% 58%
Number of students surveyed 312 523

 

Gender differences


Notable gender differences across the two campuses emerged. At the University of Utah a greater percentage of females identified immigration, gun control, feminism, and abortion as topics as difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus, compared to males. In contrast, at BYU a greater percentage of females identified
every single topic as difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus, compared to males. Furthermore, the difference in the percentage of females, compared to males, who identified a topic as difficult to discuss was 10% or more for six of the eight topics asked about. 

In almost every case a greater percentage of male students at both colleges, compared to their female counterparts, say they would “strongly” or “somewhat” support allowing a controversial speaker on campus.

In almost every case a greater percentage of male students at both colleges, compared to their female counterparts, say they would “strongly” or “somewhat” support allowing a controversial speaker on campus. The one exception was at the University of Utah, where an equal percentage of male and female students support allowing a speaker who promotes the idea that “censoring the news media is necessary” on campus. 

In terms of administrative support, a greater percentage of female students, compared to male students, at the University of Utah felt that the administration made it clear that free speech is protected on campus and that the administration would defend a speaker’s right to free speech if they were embroiled in a controversy. This was not the case at BYU, where 61% of males say that the administration makes it clear that they support freedom of speech compared to 51% of females, and an equal percentage of males and females say that the administration would defend a speaker’s right to free speech if they were embroiled in a controversy.

Finally, at both colleges more female students (66% at the University of Utah and 72% at BYU) say they have difficulty expressing themselves because of how they think other students, a professor, or the administration would respond, compared to male students (58% and 54% respectively). 

Ideological differences


Ideological differences between the campuses are also prevalent. At the University of Utah a greater percentage of liberal students identified abortion, affirmative action, feminism, immigration, and transgender issues as difficult to discuss, compared to conservatives. However, at BYU not only did a greater percentage of liberal students, compared to conservatives,  identify each topic as difficult to discuss, but the percentage difference between liberal and conservative students identifying a topic as difficult to discuss exceeded 15% in every case. 

When it comes to administrative support for free speech, conservative students at the University of Utah do not have much confidence in their campus leadership.

In almost every case a greater percentage of conservative students at both colleges, compared to their liberal counterparts, say they would “strongly” or “somewhat” support allowing a controversial speaker on campus. At the University of Utah there were two exceptions: a speaker who promotes the idea that “Christianity has a negative influence on society” (55% of liberal students say they support such a speaker compared to 32% of conservative students) and a speaker who promotes the idea that “all white people are racist” (26% support among liberal students compared to 25% among conservative students). These speakers were also exceptions to the pattern at BYU, with 47% of liberal students supporting a speaker critical of Christianity (compared to 30% of conservative students) and 28% supporting a speaker saying all white people are racist (compared to 25% of conservative students).

When it comes to administrative support for free speech, conservative students at the University of Utah do not have much confidence in their campus leadership. Less than half of them (49%) say that the administration makes it clear that free speech is protected on campus and that the administration would defend a speaker’s right to free speech if they were embroiled in controversy (47%). The percentages of liberal and moderate students reporting confidence in the administration was markedly higher. 

In contrast, at BYU liberal students have little confidence in their administration to defend free speech: 26% say the administration makes it clear that free speech is defended on campus, and 39% say the administration would be likely to defend a speaker’s right to free speech if they were embroiled in controversy. In contrast, the percentages among conservative students at BYU are 70% and 61%, respectively.

Conclusions


Female students at BYU report a somewhat different campus culture for free speech than their female counterparts at the University of Utah. In particular, females at BYU found it more difficult to have open and honest conversations on campus about all eight topics asked about. Furthermore, almost three-quarters of females at BYU (72%) say they have felt difficulty expressing their opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond, compared to 66% of females who said the same at the University of Utah. 

Liberal students at BYU also report a much different campus climate for free speech compared to their counterparts at the University of Utah. For instance, 84% of them report self-censoring on campus, compared to 49% of conservatives. At the University of Utah 76% of conservatives report self-censoring compared to 51% of liberals. Additionally, the percentage of liberal students saying that a topic is difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus compared to conservative students is staggering, with the smallest difference being 16%. Liberal students at BYU also do not perceive much administrative support for freedom of speech, nor do they expect the administration to defend a speaker’s right to free speech in the midst of a controversy. The opposite is the case at the University of Utah.

These analyses provide another example of how powerful school specific comparisons can be. Both colleges are located in the state of Utah and are located within close proximity of each other. Yet, each one has a distinct culture of free speech that is experienced differently by the students on campus and influenced by the tone set by each college’s administration. This latter point is especially the case for BYU, which is not bound by the First Amendment and whose religious mission upholds other values over freedom of expression, earning BYU a rare “Warning” designation in FIRE’s Spotlight database. If it is a question of which college to attend in Utah, then the choice is fairly clear for those who value freedom of speech and expression.