Viewpoint: In The ‘Ten Worst Colleges For Free Speech,’ Where Is My School?

March 14, 2015

By Canton Winer at USA Today

When I read headlines for the “Top 10 Schools for _______,” I usually don’t expect my university to be on the list.

In fairness, I love my school and top 10 lists are generally meaningless.

When I saw a headline ranking the 10 worst colleges for free speech, however, I did a double take.

As a senior at Fordham University, I’ve become used to the university’s particular brand of free speech restriction. At this point, the unfriendly free speech environment has become so entrenched that few students even seem to question the status quo.

At Fordham University, we don’t have free speech. And no one seems to care.

I was particularly shocked that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had listed Georgetown University among the 10 worst free speech offenders. At Fordham, students often speak of Georgetown for its comparatively liberal free expression policies.

Fordham’s look draconian in comparison.

Greg Lukianoff, President of FIRE, wrote for the Huffington Post that Georgetown was included on the list due to its treatment of H*yas for Choice. As a group that promotes access to contraceptives and the ideals of reproductive justice, H*yas for Choice often finds itself at odds with Georgetown administration. Georgetown, like Fordham, operates in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition.

“Since 2010, the university has refused to recognize the student group H*yas for Choice, contending that its mission conflicts with that of the university,” Lukianoff wrote. “Written policy, however, states that ‘all members of the Georgetown University academic community … enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression,’ including the ‘right to express points of view on the widest range of public and private concerns.’”

A similar group at Fordham, SAGES (Students for Sex & Gender Equality and Safety), just began operating last semester. The group is not officially recognized by Fordham administration, and the group operated covertly for some time out of fear of repercussions from school administrators.

Compared to Fordham SAGES, H*yas for Choice gets the royal treatment.

Even Abigail Grace, the president of H*yas for Choice, suggested in an interview with USA TODAY College that Fordham was more restrictive of contraception distribution than Georgetown.

“I think that H*yas for Choice’s case should make it very clear to Fordham administrators that it is possible to have an un-recognized, un-affiliated group distributing contraception on a Catholic campus,” Grace said.

Fordham’s website states that, “As an institution in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition, Fordham University follows Church teachings on reproductive issues. Distribution of contraceptives, contraceptive devices and/or birth control, in any form, is prohibited on Fordham University property and at University-sponsored events.”

Georgetown does not prevent H*yas for Choice from distributing condoms on Georgetown’s campus because the group is not officially university-sanctioned, nor does it use university resources.

SAGES, on the other hand, is technically breaking Fordham policy despite the group’s unofficial status and SAGES’ independent funding situation.  In Fordham’s eyes, SAGES’ activities violate the university’s mission.

Every university’s mission should be to empower students to stand up for what they believe in. Every university should foster and treasure free speech. Instead, Fordham has an overbearing bureaucratic apparatus that suffocates free expression.

Fordham administrators are keen to claim that almost no demonstrations or events are denied permission to operate on campus.

This is incredibly misleading.

Fordham has repeatedly erected roadblocks to student-led initiatives. Students attempting to put on a production of The Vagina Monologues, for example, were only able to put on the production after finding independent support through academic departments.

In order to demonstrate on Fordham’s campus, you must apply for permission with the administration. This defeats the point of protest. Fordham can claim to almost never deny these requests, but it’s troubling that students have to request the right to demonstrate in the first place.

The end result of requiring advance permission is that demonstrations almost never occur. Fordham’s policies create an overall campus atmosphere that is quietly hostile to student activism.

United Student Government published a 45-page report on Fordham’s free speech problem in 2013 , which resulted in essentially no change whatsoever.

Fordham exhibits its tacit hostility to free speech in other ways as well. Resident Assistants (RAs), for example, strongly disapprove of the intimidating behavior of the Office of Residential Life when asked privately. Fordham RAs are terrified to publicly criticize the university.

As a former RA, I remember being told in training by Senior VP for Student Affairs Jeffrey Gray that it was unprofessional to criticize your employer. (Disturbingly, Gray seemed to be referring to an event the year before in which several black RAs publicly questioned the university’s handling of a hate incident in which someone scrawled a racial slur on the door of a black RA. At least one of those RAs was not offered the RA position the following year.)

This was a blatant act of intimidation directed at a group of students who are expected to act as leaders of their peers. Since then, RAs have been told they will lose their jobs if they speak with the press (even with the student-run campus newspaper) and other acts of intimidation are fairly common.

Lukianoff also notes that Georgetown students are only granted unregulated freedom of speech on a small designated areas of campus.

Fordham students have been begging for even a smidgen of a free speech zone for years. In fact, students use Georgetown of an example of liberality in free speech policies, specifically citing the school’s free speech zone as a model for Fordham.

When I asked a member of Fordham’s administration for his thoughts on bringing a free speech zone to Fordham, he replied with a simple answer.

“Don’t you think that would imply that there isn’t free speech elsewhere on campus?”

The answer is simple: Yes, it would. And, speaking freely, that would be the truth.

Schools: Fordham University