FIRE high school intern to peers: Add campus free speech climate to college search criteria

August 14, 2017

Applying to colleges: It’s an experience most people choose to forget once they actually begin school. Well, as a 17-year-old rising high school senior, I’m in the thick of that dreaded search. From campus tours, to meetings with guidance counselors, to the (shameful) number of hours I’ve spent trolling College Confidential, my search process is, in most respects, pretty typical. However, as a result of interning for FIRE this summer, my method of finding the ideal school has expanded to include a new question: How well do the schools I’m interested in protect and encourage First Amendment freedoms?

Toward the end of my junior year, I began my college search by considering personal preferences regarding various factors: prestige, size, location, social culture, etc. Thinking about these qualities was certainly important, and it helped me create a list of schools that I am considering applying to. I also went on a few tours, which enabled me to observe firsthand the physical environment of the school and to imagine myself on campus. In addition to touring, I’ve had the chance to speak to some people who attend or attended schools I’m interested in. Learning someone else’s authentic opinion about a school has been, in many circumstances, eye opening.

But while spending numerous days a week interning at FIRE, I’ve read about and listened to people talk about various threats to First Amendment freedoms on college campuses. And some of the very schools I toured this past spring have come up in conversation — mostly in a critical way. I also attended the annual FIRE Student Network Conference and spoke with many students, some of whom told me that their schools have overly broad harassment policies and illiberal free speech zone requirements, as well as a lack of due process. These horror stories — as well as those rarer cases of schools that are actually doing right by free speech — crystallized my realization that I ought to consider First Amendment protections when searching for schools. After all, it’s much better to learn that censorship is prevalent on campus before you put down your deposit.

I certainly wasn’t indifferent to these issues before working here, but free speech wasn’t initially a pressing or relevant issue to influence where I applied. “I’m not really the type to push administrators’ buttons,” I figured, “so I probably won’t need strong First Amendment protections.” I assumed censorship typically involves the administration cracking down on rebellious students. But as I have learned, censorship can and often does come from students themselves. I had also underestimated how easily buttons can get pushed: Students aren’t simply calling for the silencing of true threats or incitement; they want to silence words that cause emotional pain, too. Finally, I failed to consider that even if I myself am not being censored, the campus as a whole will suffer a lack of intellectual diversity if my most “extreme” peers aren’t able to speak. Understanding this, I want to find an administration and student body committed to the First Amendment in the same way I want a school with, say, a good location and the right size incoming class.

So, having decided to search for schools that respect and foster free speech, how does one actually put that into practice? I decided that from now on, when I go on campus tours, I’m going to make a point to ask my tour guide a few questions:

Does this school foster civil discourse, and if so, how?

Are students frequently exposed to viewpoints contrary to their own?

Does this lead them to call for censorship in some form? And have they been successful?

Considering tour guides don’t typically highlight the flaws of their own school or administration, I’ve also been spending time looking at FIRE’s Spotlight Speech Code Database, which helps me get a better sense of how the administration promotes (or hinders) free speech. Considering that private universities can use these codes somewhat like a contract, I want to know what I might be agreeing to before I sign on. And, in order to gauge the student body’s attitude toward free speech (which is arguably more important than the administration’s) I try my best to stay up to date on various campus speech-related incidents. For example, I note which student bodies respond well to a controversial speaker, and which don’t. Certain schools, such as the University of Chicago, have really impressed me and made me want to apply. Others have made me wary.

I realize that searching for a place where we’ll hear ideas we disagree with (and even some that offend us) goes against most of our instincts. I mean, if you have the ability to seek out an environment where nearly everyone thinks and acts like you do — even down to the roommate with whom you already share 20 Facebook friends — why not do it, right? Wrong; because behind the comfort of homogeneity are the building blocks for a lack of critical thinking that is crucial to a rigorous education. I don’t want to wind up at a school where I spend all four years not being challenged or offended. And to do that, I need to be around people who question my views, and those people are going to need free speech to do so.

If anyone reading this has not yet chosen or attended a college, I urge you to analyze your favorite schools through the lens of free speech. I’m not saying you shouldn’t apply to any red light schools, nor do I think ironclad free speech protection needs to be at the top of everyone’s list. But if the First Amendment is something you care about, consider it now. Too many students at the FIRE Student Network Conference and elsewhere told me they wished they’d cared earlier. Before we enroll, before we pay the tuition, I think we should be encouraged to care.

Dora Nathans is an intern at FIRE and a rising senior at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia, PA.

Educators looking to use a free speech textbook in their classroom instruction should check out First Things First: A Modern Coursebook on Free Speech Fundamentals. Written by three First Amendment experts and professors, the book provides students with the fundamentals of modern American free speech law in a clear, concise, and accessible manner. First Things First also introduces readers to First Amendment issues related to topics such as student speech, freedom of the press, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, advertising, music censorship, and artificial intelligence.