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10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech: 2023
Each year, FIRE bestows a special dishonor upon a select group of American colleges that go above and beyond in their efforts to trample expressive freedom. These are the schools that stopped at nothing to crush faculty rights, destroy student expression, and leave guest speakers in the dust.
For that, we owe them their just reward: A spot on our exclusive “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list.
Since our inaugural “10 Worst” list in 2011, hundreds of schools have vied — knowingly or not! — for this recognition. This year’s contenders were no exception, sidestepping or shoving aside fundamental rights in both classic and creative ways to secure their place.
They include a Minnesota university that fired an art history professor for teaching art history; a Texas college that repeatedly fired professors for speaking out, despite multiple lawsuits; and a Massachusetts college that went toe-to-toe with a student group for having the nerve to advertise a documentary — about free speech.
Finally, we awarded the highest lowest honor, the “Lifetime Censorship Award,” to Georgetown University, for its longstanding commitment to, well, censorship — of everyone from an incoming libertarian lecturer to students campaigning for Bernie Sanders.
Administrators around the country, take note: If you rifle through this rogues gallery and don’t see your school, don’t despair. Any time of year, if you violate the First Amendment rights of your students and faculty — or your college’s own clear commitments to free expression — we’ll gladly give you the public recognition you deserve.
Without further ado and in no particular order, here are FIRE’s worst colleges for free speech.
Hamline University (Saint Paul, Minnesota)
Art history professor punished, called “Islamophobic” for showing 14th century painting depicting prophet Muhammad in art history class.
Hamline University, a Minnesota liberal arts college, made international headlines for illiberal art censorship after it punished a professor who dared to show historic Islamic art during a lesson on Islamic art history.
In October, adjunct professor Erica López Prater showed a 14th century painting depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad — but not before she offered multiple warnings, acknowledged that some Muslims believe the prophet should not be depicted in any way, and told students they weren’t required to look.
A student nonetheless complained after class, and Hamline was quick to announce to the entire university community that López Prater’s actions were “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” As the story gained traction, Hamline held fast, writing that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” López Prater was ultimately not rehired to teach again for the spring semester.
Despite vigorous pushback from FIRE, PEN America, and the AAUP; our complaint to Hamline’s accreditor; and pressure from more than 400 international faculty members and more than 1,900 members of the public, the university didn’t back down. Hamline’s president tripled down, claiming that “academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum,” and is subject to “the dictates of society.” Two days later, the board of trustees announced it was investigating administrators’ handling of the controversy.
It ultimately took a lawsuit, filed by López Prater on Jan. 17, for Hamline to suddenly proclaim it has been committed to academic freedom all along: “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist,” a university statement said.
In context, that statement is as preposterous as the university’s understanding of faculty rights.
Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pennsylvania)
Nittany Lion or Cowardly Lion? Penn State cancels student group’s event after initially defending its right to proceed.
FIRE praised Pennsylvania State University when it defended student group Uncensored America’s right to host a controversial event on campus. So why is Penn State on this list?
Because, unfortunately, the story didn’t end there.
On October 24, Uncensored America was set to host Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and conservative comedian Alex Stein for a comedy show on campus. A planned protest formed outside the venue. But, amid reports that a few in that crowd of hundreds were involved in skirmishes, Penn State canceled the event before it even began. The university also told protesters to disperse, citing “the threat of escalating violence.” Critically, the two violent incidents, one involving spitting, the other pepper spray, were caught on video showing police standing by doing nothing while students and a speaker were assaulted.
(The controversy came just months after FIRE convinced Penn State to drop excessive security fees piled on Uncensored America after a different event.)
FIRE wrote Penn State, asking it to reveal the threats deemed serious enough to warrant canceling the event. Its justifications left FIRE, First Amendment advocates, and Nittany Lions with more questions than answers.
“Taken all together and in the context of the moment,” Penn State’s general counsel wrote, “even with the significant police presence (supplemented with, among other things, Pennsylvania State Police on horseback) it was determined to be a safety risk to continue to move forward with the event.”
We responded, explaining that the university — one with a multi-billion dollar endowment — failed to meet its legal obligation to remove law-breakers so the expressive event and peaceful protest could continue. Instead, its decision to cancel the event amounts to capitulation to an unconstitutional heckler’s veto, in which those threatening violence to shut down a speaker get their way.
One thing is clear: Penn State may defend free expression with words, but when actions are necessary, the university is all-too-willing to turn tail, fleeing from its First Amendment obligations and letting disruptors win.
Collin College (McKinney, Texas)
The lesson Collin College can’t seem to learn: When you play games with faculty speech on FIRE’s watch, you get burned.
Given that Collin College has earned a reputation as the “epicenter of censorship in Texas,” it is no surprise that the college makes its third straight appearance on our infamous list.
Collin College’s regime of censorship began in 2020 when it issued a written warning to history professor Lora Burnett following her tweets about the debate between then-Vice President Mike Pence and then-Sen. Kamala Harris, which was included in a conservative media outlet’s roundup report. FIRE represented Burnett in a First Amendment lawsuit against the college and prevailed: Under the court judgment, Collin College agreed to pay more than $70,000 in damages plus attorneys’ fees.
But Collin College wasn’t finished trampling faculty rights. Next, it terminated professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones — coincidentally, two of the three officers of a newly-formed chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a non-bargaining faculty union. Both Heaslip and Jones had also criticized the college’s handling of COVID-19. Heaslip reached a settlement with the college, but Jones, represented by FIRE, filed a federal lawsuit to vindicate her First Amendment rights.
A federal judge ruled that the Collin College administrators who fired Jones could be held personally and financially responsible for violating the First Amendment, denying their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity calling the defendants’ argument “dead on arrival.” The college agreed to a settlement that includes reinstating Jones to a two-year, $230,000 teaching contract and paying $145,000 in attorneys’ fees.
But wait, there’s more!
In January 2022, Collin College fired history professor Michael Phillips for advocating for the removal of Confederate statues and criticizing the college’s COVID-19 policies. Also represented by FIRE, Phillips sued the college and other university officials for violating his constitutional rights. In September, the court denied the college’s motion to dismiss, allowing Phillips to proceed with his claim alleging the college imposed an unconstitutional prior restraint on his speech and the speech of other faculty members.
Since Collin College debuted on FIRE’s list in 2020, FIRE filed three lawsuits against the school, recouping $300,000 for the terminated professors and more than $180,000 in attorneys’ fees. To achieve those settlements, FIRE successfully fought for the professors’ First Amendment rights in court. And if Collin College continues to violate faculty rights, we’ll continue to turn up the heat.
Texas A&M (College Station, Texas)
Texas A&M forgets the First Amendment, repeatedly ignores student groups’ rights.
Journalists, fish, and drag queens: Oh my! In 2022, Texas A&M University stepped on the rights of all kinds of student groups, from the university’s preeminent student paper, to several LGBTQ rights organizations, to a freshman orientation club.
In February, Texas A&M started 2022 on the wrong foot, telling its 130-year-old, independent student newspaper The Battalion that it would be swallowed by the journalism department, and prohibited from printing physical issues. The next day, the school backtracked following outcry from journalists and advocacy groups across the country, telling the paper that it could continue printing until the end of the spring semester. Amid the chaos, FIRE reminded Texas A&M that The Battalion editors have the right to make decisions about the paper’s operations: Administrators cannot usurp the staff’s editorial independence.
Fortunately, in spring 2022, the paper’s operations proceeded as usual. Unfortunately, the university’s malfeasance did too.
FIRE received reports that Texas A&M was — again — disregarding student rights. This time, the school had evidently dropped its sponsorship of Draggieland, an annual drag show hosted by various LGBTQ groups on campus. Further, it barred the students from accessing the university bank account containing previous years’ profits. The organizers had suspicions that administrators dropped the sponsorship after alumni objected to the event’s viewpoint and performances.
In the wake of this event, yet another report against Texas A&M bubbled to the surface. Student leaders of Fish Camp, a student club-run freshman orientation program, complained that in Fall 2021, administrators had effectively usurped students’ control of their group by taking away their choice in group leadership and rewriting the group’s values.
FIRE wrote Texas A&M about Draggieland on April 22 and about Fish Camp on May 9, arguing the university’s actions violated students’ expressive and associational rights. The school responded on May 22, dismissing all of FIRE’s concerns — and, ultimately, the rights of its students.
University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Penn Law dean pressured to “do something” about controversial professor, opts to abandon academic freedom.
Penn Law is willfully ignoring its commitment to free speech and academic freedom in an effort to oust Amy Wax, the tenured professor whose controversial comments on race and immigration have come to define her academic career.
Dean Ted Ruger got it right at first, initially denouncing Wax’s views but appropriately noting that her comments are protected and that punishing them would jeopardize academic freedom for all faculty. But under mounting pressure to “do something” about the divisive academic, Ruger changed his tune.
An open student letter asked Penn to “reform” tenure to make it “consistent with principles of social equity.” Ruger subsequently promised “imminent action” and days later announced disciplinary charges against Wax, citing a variety of conduct charges including causing “harm” — for which he proffered no evidence of actionable misconduct.
Academic freedom and tenure are intended for precisely these moments — when faculty express controversial or offensive views. As we’ve said, Ruger knows his actions are shortsighted and will hurt academic freedom for other faculty. He doesn’t care.
And the situation is not much rosier for students. Penn landed second-to-last in FIRE’s survey of student free expression at over 200 colleges nationwide — the largest survey of its kind ever conducted — with an overall speech climate ranking of “Very Poor.”
If Penn abolishes academic freedom in its bid to axe Wax, there won’t be much lower the once-upon-a-time “green light” school can go.
Emerson (Boston, Massachusetts)
Emerson still “kinda sus,” prevents student group from advertising a documentary about — drumroll please — free speech.
Emerson is apparently a glutton for punishment and strongly desires to be a repeat champ on this list after its inclusion last year. We’re happy to oblige.
After suspending and investigating Turning Point USA for distributing stickers on campus reading “China Kinda Sus,” Emerson’s administration placed a formal warning on the group’s record, despite acknowledging that the group did not intend to target anyone other than China’s government with criticism. The group then lost its faculty advisor and was unable to find a replacement, resulting in the administration derecognizing the group. By repeatedly denouncing the group, Emerson clearly stacked the deck against TPUSA.
The censorial treatment continued through 2022. First, a student leader of TPUSA attempted to put up flyers around campus responding to an opinion piece that criticized TPUSA in the campus newspaper. College administrators denied the student permission to post the flyers, citing university civility policies.
Then, college administrators denied TPUSA’s request to screen a CBS News documentary about free speech on campus because of alleged factual inaccuracies in the promotional material. Then, it denied approval to post promotional materials for another documentary because the advertisements would provoke “negative responses.”
Emerson showed no signs of deescalating its attacks on free speech, so we ramped up our response by contacting Emerson’s accreditor. We filed a complaint with the New England Commission of Higher Education in December arguing that Emerson’s continued treatment of TPUSA demonstrates that it is not in compliance with the commission’s standard requiring that an institution be committed to “the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.”
Emerson recently announced that a new president will take office in June. Let’s hope this marks a turning point for Emerson’s commitment to the First Amendment.
Emporia State (Emporia, Kansas)
Emporia State seizes opportunity to axe both tenure protections and 33 faculty members.
Last fall, Emporia State University seized the opportunity to spurn academic freedom and effectively end tenure protections. Under a newly adopted policy, it fired more than 30 faculty members — including one whose newspaper op-ed criticizing the school’s then-impending decision opened with: “I may be fired for writing this.”
On September 14, 2022, Emporia State adopted a policy titled the “Framework For Workforce Management,” broadening administrators’ discretion when firing university employees, including tenured faculty. Administrators can now fire tenured faculty with only 30 days notice for reasons like “cost of operations” and “realignment of resources” with no further explanation, leaving these terms ripe for abuse against faculty who do not speak, write, or teach to the university’s liking. Using these and the other vague justifications in the policy, Emporia State fired 33 faculty members immediately after adopting it.
That includes Max McCoy, Emporia State’s sole journalism professor and advisor to the student newspaper, who lost his job Sept. 15, one day after Emporia adopted the policy and two days after McCoy penned a column criticizing it.
How could such a policy be implemented in the first place? The Kansas Board of Regents set the terms back in January 2021, giving Kansas universities the option to propose such policies as cost-saving measures following COVID-19. In September 2022, Emporia State proposed such a policy, and the board approved. No other Kansas university proposed a policy before the board’s December 31, 2022, deadline.
FIRE and McCoy aren’t Emporia State’s only critics: the AAUP and the school’s former interim president have also joined calls for the school to reconsider the policy and firings. FIRE wrote Emporia State on October 31, 2022, voicing our concern about the policy’s potential for abuse against faculty and the possibility that it was used to fire McCoy in retaliation for his criticism.
Emporia State responded on November 14, 2022, stating the policy poses no threat to academic freedom. Needless to say, the school’s words mean little in light of its actions.
Tennessee Tech (Cookeville, Tennessee)
FIRE dresses down Tennessee Tech for punishing student groups over drag show.
At Tennessee Tech, if you offend President Philip Oldham, your group will be punished — First Amendment be damned. He’s previously claimed, “Our students are our priority.” But his actions suggest otherwise.
Oldham canceled all campus events of the Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance and the Tech Players student groups after a video of their August 2022 drag show surfaced online. Speaking to the entire campus community, Oldham proclaimed that he was “disturbed,” “dismayed,” and “offended by” the show’s apparent “disparaging mockery toward any religious group.” He banned the students from hosting campus events “pending a review,” which is still ongoing. No disciplinary charges, no hearing, no chance to contest this clearly unlawful prior restraint, just five months (and counting) of censorship for wounding Oldham’s delicate sensibilities.
Unfortunately for thin-skinned university presidents nationwide, the First Amendment protects students’ right to host expressive, artistic events such as drag shows, even if they perturb administrators. FIRE called on Tennessee Tech to immediately rectify this egregious First Amendment violation by rescinding its ban on campus events.
Fittingly, Tennessee Tech General Counsel Troy Perdue responded by complaining about the “sensationalism, mischaracterizations, and invective” of our advocacy. How dare we cite the president’s own words against the university he leads! No surprise to see the same university unable to stomach a benign drag show also take offense at FIRE for criticizing its blatantly unconstitutional response to clearly protected expression. The truth hurts, Troy.
For its ongoing punishment of students for hosting a drag show, Tennessee Tech earns its spot as one of worst schools for free speech. We urge this university’s leadership to read up on the First Amendment and try not to clutch those pearls too tightly.
University of Oregon (Eugene, Oregon)
University of Oregon puts words in teachers’ mouths, requires faculty to submit DEI statements to be eligible for hiring, promotion, and tenure.
DEI statements have become a significant trend in higher education as more and more institutions require faculty, both prospective and current, to demonstrate their commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
These institutions certainly have an interest in ensuring their faculty members create welcoming environments for their students, regardless of identity or background. But as the University of Oregon demonstrated this past year, too often DEI statement requirements exceed these reasonable goals by compelling faculty to pledge allegiance to contested ideological views.
Oregon did just that, directing faculty search committees to use a rubric when evaluating DEI statements, which are intended to further UO’s goals of “becoming an institution committed to antiracism and other forms of anti-oppression.” The rubric gives low scores to an applicant who, for example, says “it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued,” or describes “only activities that are already the expectation of faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc.).”
On the other hand, applicants who discuss DEI as a “core [value] that every faculty member should actively contribute to advancing,” and applicants or faculty members who intend to be “strong advocate[s]” for DEI, will earn high scores. This ideological litmus test applies to tenure-track faculty, faculty seeking promotion or tenure, faculty undergoing tenure review, and prospective faculty. Basically, if you want to work at UO, you have to pledge allegiance to and promote administrators’ DEI vision.
These requirements violate faculty’s freedom of expression and academic freedom, as we told the university. Just imagine if a public university bound by the First Amendment (as the University of Oregon is) evaluated faculty based on their commitment to patriotism or color-blindness or socialism.
The university ignored our advocacy, but we’ll stay vigilant. We cannot tolerate schools who violate faculty members’ freedom of conscience by penalizing those who dissent from university-sanctioned opinions.
Loyola University New Orleans (New Orleans, Louisiana)
LOYNO sanctions professor, stifles student’s protected speech.
Loyola University New Orleans spent the last two-and-a-half years subjecting professor Walter Block to investigations and sanctions for his protected speech. Despite its strong promises of free speech and academic freedom, the university targeted Block for everything from his teaching of particular economic theories to his classroom discussions of Gandhi and Hitler.
After a June 2020 student-created petition calling for Block’s termination began circulating, LOYNO defended Block’s classroom speech. But it didn’t have his back for long. In 2021, Loyola determined that some of Block’s teachings on the gender wage gap and the economics of slavery created a “hostile learning environment.” It forced Block to undergo mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training.
Block received more complaints about his protected speech throughout 2021. These complaints — many of which cited no specific comments — led Loyola to impose more mandatory training and to threaten to monitor Block’s classes to make sure that his protected speech did not harm the precious minds of his pupils. Then, the administration threatened Block with termination.
FIRE sent two letters to LOYNO in 2022, pointing out that these actions violate its admirable promises of free expression. Unfortunately, our advice to drop the sanctions has not been heeded.
Our suspicions were also raised elsewhere on campus, when administrators cracked down on a student promoting a pro-choice march. One administrator said it was because the student was handing out flyers that didn’t align with the school’s religious mission (despite the fact that the school’s policies explicitly include a right to dissent); a second said it was actually because the student was being disruptive; and a third said the student’s flyers had not been pre-approved for distribution. The student complied with the request to stop handing out flyers, but was accosted by two police officers when they continued to promote their message verbally.
We explained how these contradictory rationales chill student speech. The school responded, insisting — against all evidence — that it acted in accordance with its policies.
Lifetime Censorship Award: Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.)
It took Georgetown 122 days to determine that a 45-word tweet is protected political speech. The school’s penchant for censorship dates back even further.
Georgetown University was a late addition to last year’s “10 Worst” list. The school had just suspended incoming faculty member Ilya Shapiro for a tweet criticizing President Biden’s choice to replace Justice Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Supreme Court.
What we didn’t know at the time was that it would take 122 days — longer than 12 round-trips to the moon — for Georgetown to wrap up its investigation into those 45 words: ones clearly protected by the university’s policy promising “all members of the University community … the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”
When Georgetown finally lifted its microscope and decided to reinstate Shapiro, he declined the offer. The school’s reinstatement letter — coupled with its sham investigation — made clear it has no interest in protecting the expressive rights of faculty and students with dissenting viewpoints. (Which should come as no surprise: Georgetown earns FIRE’s lowest, red light rating for its free speech policies.)
Unfortunately, Georgetown’s fondness for censorship is nothing new. In addition to appearing on last year’s 10 Worst list, it was also featured on our 2019, 2017, and 2015 lists.
For years, the university refused to recognize the pro-choice student group H*yas for Choice. It argued that doing so would conflict with its Catholic and Jesuit mission. But the university’s speech and expression policy explicitly states that only “time, place and manner” considerations can govern “the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university.” What’s more, H*yas for Choice was denied recognition despite the existence of recognized groups of Muslim and Jewish students who, by their nature, explicitly reject Catholic beliefs.
Let’s also not forget that Georgetown stopped students from tabling for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign — an action so censorial it drew the attention of Congress. There was also the time its satellite campus in Qatar shut down a debate about whether God should be portrayed as a woman. It’s no surprise then, that Georgetown ranks near the very bottom of FIRE’s annual College Free Speech Rankings.
For these reasons, Georgetown joins Yale University, DePaul University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Syracuse University as a recipient of FIRE’s infamous Lifetime Censorship Award.
This was not an easy list to pull together. In one of FIRE’s most hotly debated meetings of the year, many worthy contenders vying for the unenviable title end up on the free speech equivalent of the cutting room floor.
But not just anyone can be the worst of the worst. We’re confident these schools are.
Think your school could’ve been a contender? Join the conversation with the hashtag #10WorstColleges.
- Free Speech
- Student Rights
- Hamline University
- Pennsylvania State University - University Park
- Collin College
- Texas A&M University - College Station
- University of Pennsylvania
- Emerson College
- Emporia State University
- University of Oregon
- Loyola University New Orleans
- Georgetown University
- Hamline University: Art History Instructor Dismissed for Showing Class Medieval Islamic Artwork Depicting Muhammad
- Pennsylvania State University: Cancellation of Student-Organized Event Featuring Proud Boys Founder Amid Lack of Response to Violence Against Protesters
- Collin College: Professors Dismissed Over COVID-19 Criticism, Union Advocacy
- Texas A&M University: Administration Attempts to Move Student Newspaper Under Journalism Department, Demands It Stop Printing
- University of Pennsylvania: Following Controversial Commentary, Amy Wax Faces ‘Major Sanction’ from Penn Law
- Emerson College: TPUSA Prevented From Holding, Advertising Documentary Screenings
- Emporia State University: University Adopts Policy Stripping Tenure Protections Then Fires 33 Faculty Members
- Tennessee Technological University: President Punishes Student Groups Over Drag Show
- Loyola University New Orleans: Professor Repeatedly Investigated, Sanctioned for Protected Speech
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