Doing college applications? Consider the school’s free speech stats.

November 13, 2019

Each fall, high school seniors begin their college applications. Deciding which schools to apply to are some of the first major decisions these students ever make — ones that can impact the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, students have numerous resources to aid their decision-making process. From prestige, tuition, and even the quality of food, ranking sites such as U.S. News & World Report, Niche, Forbes, and others include a variety of criteria in determining the ranking of a school. However, these ranking sites often leave out one of the most crucial aspects of higher education: free speech protections.

Free speech rights hardly come to the forefront of many applicants’ minds when deciding upon a school. But they should. With the ever-growing presence of social media and political polarization in the academic setting, students and faculty are being censored in more ways than ever by their respective college administrations. 

Free speech rights hardly come to the forefront of many applicants’ minds when deciding upon a school. But they should.

The ability to freely conduct academic inquiry and undertake innovative research ideas is paramount to higher education. Professors and students must have the ability to engage controversial opinions in order to push through inherent bias and prejudice. Without doing so we remain stagnant, unable to expand our intellectual frontiers. If we allow college administrations to create limits on expression, we undermine the central mission of higher education. So if free inquiry is a bedrock principle of universities worldwide, why not include it as part of the college decision making process?  

FIRE has developed the Spotlight Database for just that purpose. It provides detailed information on college speech regulations — or speech codes — at more than 450 institutions. In our database, you will also find information about specific incidents of censorship, violations of due process, and more. This unique collection of data holds universities accountable for their free speech policies. The database also includes ratings and information about due process protections at about 50 institutions across the country.  

In a nation with over 5,000 different colleges and universities, their public ranking is not a trivial matter. From a college administration’s perspective, the rankings can have huge financial consequences. From a consumer’s perspective, a ranking can be the easiest distinction a student can make when deciding between schools. However, there is a disparity between what the rankings advertise and what they measure. Measuring academic excellence is well and good, but if students are not able to express themselves on campus, they are not reaping the full benefits of their education, and comprehensive rankings that fail to account for this are incomplete. 

Whether or not they’re measured by rankings, students should consider free speech protections as they prepare for the next stage of their education, and using our Spotlight database as an aid in that process can help students make a holistic, well-informed decision about their selection. If rankings manage to systematize this, the potential benefits can extend beyond the students themselves, as colleges will have to check themselves and re-evaluate their respective policies to determine if they are in line with our constitutional rights. Regardless, students will arrive on campus with a greater assurance that their institution is doing its best to enhance its educational environment.