Ranking the 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech

March 11, 2015

By Aja Frost at USA Today

Most college rankings focus on factors like prestige, SAT scores, freshmen retention rate, selectivity and class size.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), however, has a unique annual ranking: the 10 institutions posing the biggest threat to free speech on campus.

FIRE President Greg Lukianoff explained the rationale for the list, saying schools are “openly suppressing constitutionally protected speech… to shut down forms of expression that might be uncomfortable, disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the campus community.”

The list includes (in no particular order) University of Iowa, Modesto Junior College, Georgetown University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Brandeis University, Chicago State University, Marquette University and California State University, Fullerton.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Kansas Board of Regents also made the list.

FIRE explains the rationale behind each choice.

For example, the University of Iowa earned its spot because of a recent on-campus art display controversy.

On December 5, 2014, Professor Serhat Tanyalocar installed a seven-foot Klu Klux Klan robe covered in a college of anti-racist newspaper clippings. Many students were outraged, and the university removed the effigy within four hours.

“UI… responded not with a defense of Tanyolacar’s First Amendment rights but by censoring and publicly denouncing the artist for offending students,” Lukianoff wrote.

The Supreme Court has continually upheld art as a protected form of free speech.

Like all public universities and federally-funded institutions, Bonilla explains it is illegal for the University of Iowa to take away this freedom.

But UI’s Tom Rocklin, vice president for Student Life, says the statue’s removal had “nothing to do with its content.”

“[It] was in an area that requires a reservation. There was no reservation, so I removed it,” he says. “Our reservation process is so we can be assured the display is not going to damage the landscape or be dangerous to people.”

Almost every permit request is granted, Rocklin says, and when they are denied it’s never because of the display’s message.

“In fact, the day after that display appeared… there was a counter display in the same space, and I had that removed,” he says.

Rocklin doesn’t think FIRE’s list was “anything to act upon.”

“Lists like this — the methodology typically isn’t well-described,” he says. “I’m much more interested in how people on our campus feel about issues then an advocacy group that clearly doesn’t know much about what goes on here.”

According to Peter Bonilla, the director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, there wasn’t a “particularly strict set of criteria.”

“We mainly looked at our work from the past year so to see where we’d had the most troubling instances of censorship,” he says.

Ronald Krotoszysnki, a professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in First Amendment Law, believes the project is “important” but has reservations about the methodology as well.

“If public universities are failing to routinely respect the speech rights of their students, faculty and staff, that’s something that should be addressed,” he says. “However, FIRE’s complaints would be more compelling if the list was more methodologized.”

However the list is compiled, it may give students deciding where to apply and go to school one more thing to take into account, just like tuition and average graduation rate.

“It’s important for students and parents of students to be aware of the climate for freedom of speech at a university they might want to consider,” says Hans-Jorg Tiede, a chapter president of the American Association of University Professors. “Suppresion of speech is an on-going concern. I’d expect the AAUP welcomes FIRE drawing attention to violations occurring at these institutions.”

Schools: University of Iowa Cases: University of Iowa: Art Professor’s Controversial Display Removed After Student Complaints