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FIRE partners with the New Tolerance Campaign, urges new Columbia president to do better on free speech

Columbia earned an “abysmal” free speech score from FIRE, putting it dead last in our annual College Free Speech Rankings. Can the university’s new president turn things around?
Columbia University in New York

Drop of Light /

Columbia University in New York City.

Columbia University — a prominent institution of higher education — unfortunately ranked dead last in FIRE’s free speech rankings of 203 colleges and universities.   

To ensure Columbia University not only promises to protect free speech but actively defends it, FIRE has partnered with the New Tolerance Campaign to empower students, alumni, and concerned citizens to urge new president Minouche Shafik to improve the university’s speech policies. 

University presidents wield substantial power to promote — or limit — free expression on college campuses. The president of Columbia University in New York City is no exception; from the moment she took office on July 1, President Shafik inherited the challenge of protecting student and faculty free speech at an institution which — despite adopting the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression — maintains restrictive speech codes and ranks last in FIRE’s 2022-23 College Free Speech Rankings

FIRE gives Columbia University a “yellow light” speech code rating. Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that could too easily be applied by administrators in an abusive or arbitrary manner to restrict free speech. Columbia maintains four of these policies.

Furthermore, Columbia is the only institution surveyed in FIRE’s free speech rankings to earn an “Abysmal” speech climate rating. Columbia scores particularly poorly in categories related to (1) student support for the use of disruptive conduct to shut down speakers on campus, and (2) students’ lack of comfort expressing their thoughts to professors and peers. 

One student talked about their fear of in-class debate, stating: “When students become very emotionally involved in a class discussion, I feel that it would be dangerous to argue for the other side even if that's encouraged in class.”

As an adopter of the Chicago Statement, which FIRE considers to be the gold standard for an institutional commitment to free expression, Columbia is obligated to defend and uphold speech rights for its students and faculty. One way to put its promise to protect free expression into practice is to reform restrictive policies in ways that satisfy various campus imperatives while also respecting free speech promises and principles.

Starting today, you can join FIRE in calling for President Minouche Shafik to reform restrictive speech policies at Columbia.

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