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Why Hillsdale earns a ‘Warning’ rating from FIRE

Campus of Hillsdale College

Cody Scanlan / Holland Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

In a recent opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn took issue with the “Warning” rating FIRE awards Hillsdale’s speech codes.

Arnn argued that Hillsdale’s policies — which ban speech that doesn’t meet the college’s particular standards of civility and morality — are necessary for discourse to flourish on campus. FIRE disagrees with that premise, because we believe unfettered freedom of expression is crucial to a university education. Before we explain our reasoning on that critical point, we’ll set the record straight on our speech code rating system and how it applies to Hillsdale’s policies. 

FIRE’s Spotlight database rating system

FIRE’s Spotlight database includes policy ratings for 486 four-year colleges and universities across the country. We rate the extent to which written student regulations infringe on speech that is protected under First Amendment standards, at both public and private schools. 

Public institutions are, of course, legally bound to follow First Amendment standards, but private schools have the right, as private associations, to prioritize other values above free speech. Accordingly, we first review policies at private schools to see if they do promise their students free speech rights. If they do, we hold them to following the associated legal standards a matriculating student may expect given those advertised commitments. 

FIRE's Spotlight Database


FIRE’s Spotlight Database rates policies that regulate student expression at over 486 colleges and universities.

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However, if a private school doesn’t have a clear, written commitment to free speech, and instead consistently states in policy that student speech must align with other particular values, we award that school a Warning rating. 

The Warning rating is exactly that — a warning to prospective students that it would be unreasonable to expect free speech rights there, given there isn’t a strong written commitment to free speech rights as traditionally understood at that institution. 

Prospective students certainly may be seeking the sort of environment that a Warning school has prioritized over free speech. But FIRE wants to ensure we provide this information so students can make an informed choice about their education. 

Hillsdale’s policies

Hillsdale holds itself out as an institution that values civil and religious liberty. However, its written policies don’t actually include a clear commitment to student free speech rights. Instead, they emphasize maintaining an environment in line with Hillsdale’s particular civil, moral standards. 

For example, Hillsdale’s Guidelines Regarding the Mission and Moral Commitments of Hillsdale College include the following discussion:

  1. As a place of liberal learning, Hillsdale College has always welcomed thoughtful inquiry and civil debate.
  2. Since the founding of the College, natural law principles, which support rational inquiry and civil and religious liberty, have been central to its work. From the College’s start, the moral tenets of Christianity as commonly understood in the Christian tradition have been essential to the mission of the College.
  3. Thus the College has always understood morally responsible sexual acts to be those occurring in marriage and between the sexes. This understanding has been unwavering, undergirds its policies regarding student conduct, and informs its institutional practices.
  4. The College cannot therefore lend itself or its approbation to organizations or activities that contravene this commitment.

The guidelines say that the college has “welcomed” inquiry and debate and that rational inquiry and civil liberty have been central to the college’s work, but this statement does not amount to a clear commitment to upholding students’ free speech rights.

And while these guidelines seem primarily aimed at addressing sex before marriage and sex between members of the same sex, they reserve the right of the college to deny approval of organizations or activities that contravene its commitment to its mission. By reserving this right, the college goes beyond recommending aspirational standards for the moral conduct of students and veers into policing students’ exposure to differing ideas about morality. Regulation of students’ freedom of association — a core facet of the First Amendment — inhibits students from unfettered inquiry.

If a group of Hillsdale students wanted to form a recognized club that advocates for LGBT rights, Hillsdale could refuse them under this policy. And because Hillsdale’s Regulations for Proper Student Conduct stipulate that only recognized student organizations can use college facilities, Hillsdale’s choice to deny recognition to a group because it doesn’t align with the college’s moral standards would mean it can’t use any college facilities whatsoever to conduct expressive activities. No handing out flyers to see if other students are interested in the group’s cause. No engaging in a demonstration about its point of view.

If Hillsdale were to change its policies to provide a more unequivocal commitment to free speech rights, we’d rate its other regulations on expression per First Amendment standards. 

At a public school, that would violate the First Amendment, and FIRE would intervene. And if a private school that promised free speech rights took similar action, we’d also intervene, telling them to live up to that commitment. Because Hillsdale is a private school that makes no such commitment, we award it a Warning rating so that students can know what to expect before setting foot on campus.

And that’s not the only policy at Hillsdale that would be unconstitutional at a public institution — and deeply troubling at an institution that promises free speech.

Hillsdale’s regulations ban “lewd” and “indecent” expression, admitting there is “significant latitude in understanding this requisite decency,” but claiming the college has the responsibility to avoid promoting “dehumanizing films or media.” In his piece, Arnn writes, “To be sure, any rule can be abused.” But as FIRE has learned over decades of free speech advocacy, broad grants of discretion to administrators are particularly ripe for abuse. And essentially telling students “I know it when I see it” about banned expression isn’t helpful.

Another provision flat-out bans all speech that is “[i]mproper, offensive, abusive” or “disparaging” over social media, websites, cell phones, or email. That means a private text from one student to another that an administrator thinks is offensive is all it takes for that student to be punished. In today’s cancel culture era, it’s all too easy for an online mob to jump on an example of subjectively offensive speech on social media and insist the administration spring into action.

Again, some high schoolers and their families may read these requirements and think it sounds like the sort of campus environment they’re looking for. As Arnn notes: “Everyone who matriculates or joins the faculty or staff acknowledges the age-old purposes of the college,” and “[a]ll learn in advance about Hillsdale’s speech code.” 

Indeed, student survey results that were a part of FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings show Hillsdale would rank first in many categories, including how comfortable they are expressing ideas, and how reticent they are to engage in disruptive conduct.

However, the survey also shows Hillsdale wouldn’t have ranked first for the tolerance for liberal speakers subcomponent. And when respondents were asked to share a moment where they felt they could not express their opinion on campus, the results revealed not every student is comfortable expressing themselves at Hillsdale.

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  • One student from the class of 2024 wrote: “I have had to suppress my opinions about topics like the LGBTQIA+ community . . . For example I did not express my opinion in front of my theology class as the professor had previously stated that he though[t] homosexuality was a sin and I did not feel comfortable engaging with him.”
  • Another student wrote: “The administration bans all forms of protest and dissent, which leads to muted student backlash when they host rather heinous political thinkers in their forums.”
  • Another said: “If I am not pro life in every circumstance, I am looked down upon.” 

The Warning rating FIRE gives to Hillsdale seeks to provide a heads-up to all prospective students to avoid scenarios where students enroll and are surprised to find First Amendment standards for protest and dissent are not enforced. Again, according to Arnn, all Hillsdale students “learn in advance about Hillsdale’s speech code and every other fundamental practice of the college.” Given that, we are confused why he takes issue with us giving a heads-up as well. 

If Hillsdale were to change its policies to provide a more unequivocal commitment to free speech rights, we’d rate its other regulations on expression per First Amendment standards. It wouldn’t be the first school to drop the Warning rating: A few years ago, Vassar College revised its policies to more clearly commit to free speech rights. We stand ready to assist Hillsdale with revisions if it is interested in making that change (as well as assisting with revising the rest of its policies, many of which would earn our worst, “red light” rating for clearly and substantially restricting free speech).

That Hillsdale provides warning to anyone who would value dissent above collegiality makes it hard to credit that collegiality as anything more than an effective pre-applied ideological filter. There’s a joke from the 1960s about an American and a Russian talking. The American says, “Why, America is so free, we can walk right up on the steps of the White House and call [Lyndon B.] Johnson a stinker.” The Russian laughs: “That’s nothing, comrade! In Russia, we can go into the Kremlin and call Johnson a stinker!” Bragging about how well everyone gets along when their ability to dissent is constrained should not entitle anyone to consideration in a free speech ranking system. 

Free speech is critical to the core purpose of the university

As stated earlier, private schools have every right, as private associations, to set their own rules for speech. But here at FIRE, we think the best possible environment for a college campus is a school that maintains speech-protective written policies and actually follows them. 

The purpose of the university is to advance knowledge, so campuses must be places where controversial ideas can be presented and tested. On the other side of things, the exchange of ideas is hindered when colleges make clear only some viewpoints should be shared, whether through restrictive written policy or through rights-infringing practices. 

Maintaining and enforcing restrictive speech codes is one way colleges signal to students that their speech may not be safe. Rather than supporting discourse, subjective rules that students have to guess at inhibits it. It also sends the message to students that the best answer for speech they dislike is censorship. We’ve seen this unfold time and time again across FIRE’s decades of casework.

Just this past summer, officials at the University of Texas at Dallas threatened to suspend a student for two years after he called officers “parasites” and flipped them off. They admitted the conduct “might have amounted to constitutionally protected speech,” but said he was responsible for violating the school’s conduct code ban on “disorderly, lewd, indecent, inappropriate, loud, or obscene conduct or behavior that interferes with the orderly functioning of the University or interferes with an individual’s pursuit of an education.” Following a letter from FIRE, the university rescinded the charges. 

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Way back in 2006, the College Republicans at San Francisco State University held a protest against Hezbollah and Hamas that included stomping on replicas of those organizations’ flags. Because the flags include “Allah” in Arabic, other students complained to the administration. The university charged the College Republicans with “actions of incivility,” and the students sued.

A U.S. Magistrate Judge enjoined the university from enforcing the policy, arguing that requiring speech to conform to certain civility standards prohibits “the kind of communication that it is necessary to use to convey the full emotional power with which a speaker embraces her ideas or the intensity and richness of the feelings that attach her to her cause.”

That’s not to say all impassioned expression is protected. Disruptive protest that prevents listeners from hearing speakers — the campus shout-downs we’ve become all too familiar with — violate free speech principles, and FIRE regularly intervenes when these rights violations occur.

But administrators reserving the right to discipline any speech they subjectively determine does not meet the college’s mission or is incivil puts a grave amount of power in their hands to determine the bounds of debate on campus. At FIRE, we think the bounds of debate on campus should be near limitless. And if an institution thinks otherwise, we’re here to warn students.

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