The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings

September 21, 2021
  • Largest survey for campus free expression ranks over 150 top colleges
  • Claremont McKenna College #1 for free speech, DePauw worst
  • 66% of students report some level of acceptance for speaker shout-downs — up 4 percentage points from last year; 23% consider it acceptable for people to use violence to stop certain speech — up 5 percentage points from last year

PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 21, 2021 — Prospective college students who want to make sure that their free expression will be protected should consider Claremont McKenna College or the University of Chicago. But if they land at DePauw University or Marquette University, their free speech rights are at serious risk.

That’s because DePauw and Marquette rank dead last in the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings. Presented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, College Pulse, and RealClearEducation, the rankings assess a school’s free speech climate based upon the opinions of over 37,000 students at 159 of America’s largest and most prestigious campuses — the largest survey of campus free expression ever performed.

Existing ranking systems don’t look at a core aspect of higher education: the ability to think, discuss, and speak freely,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “Our rankings guide prospective students and their parents toward schools that value free speech and open inquiry. They also help us hold schools accountable and demand they do better.

EXPLORE THE RANKINGS

The report takes into account the varied dimensions of free expression on campus — from the ability to discuss challenging topics like race, gender dynamics, and geo-political conflicts, to whether students hold back from openly sharing their views. The rankings are designed to help students and parents make enrollment decisions, and score the overall speech climate on each campus.

The top five colleges for free speech:
  1. Claremont McKenna College
  2. University of Chicago
  3. University of New Hampshire
  4. Emory University
  5. Florida State University
The worst colleges for free speech:
  1. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  2. Boston College
  3. Louisiana State University
  4. Marquette University
  5. DePauw University

“There are fundamental questions that every student should want answered before committing to a college,” said FIRE Senior Research Counsel Adam Goldstein. “The value of higher education comes from developing a fuller understanding of the world by asking questions that challenge the status quo. A college that won’t clearly protect your right to ask those questions is a bad deal, even if it boasts small class sizes or a fancy stadium.”

Colleges are scored on seven main components: openness to discussion of controversial topics, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, administrative support for free speech, comfort expressing ideas publicly, whether students support disruptive conduct during campus speeches, and FIRE’s speech code rating. Public schools generally performed better than private schools. Only 5 of the bottom 30 schools on the list are public. 

Other highlights from the report include: 

  • More than 80% of students report self-censoring their viewpoints at their colleges at least some of the time, with 21% saying they censor themselves often. 
  • Generally, students showed much greater intolerance for campus speakers with conservative positions.
  • Racial inequality, abortion, and gun control top the list of most difficult subjects to discuss. 
  • 66% of students report some level of acceptance for speaker shout-downs (up 4 percentage points from FIRE’s 2020 report) and 23% consider it acceptable for people to use violence to stop certain speech (up 5 percentage points). Two elite women’s colleges, Wellesley College and Barnard College, top this list, supporting the use of violence at 45% and 43% respectively.
  • Only a third of students say that their college administration makes it either very or extremely clear that they will protect free speech on campus.

The data also reveal that students are most uncomfortable expressing their views on social media or when engaging in a public disagreement with a professor.

“The research is clear, and our experience working with these schools confirms it: Much of the campus climate for expression is determined by the administration,” said Sean Stevens, FIRE senior research fellow for polling and analytics. “Staking out a leadership position on free speech and open debate resonates with students and has a real effect on a campus’ climate for free expression.”

EXPLORE THE RANKINGS

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

UPDATE (September 23, 2021): Due to a coding error, Wake Forest University’s ranking has been adjusted in FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Rankings. Wake Forest has moved up to #109 on the list. The school taking Wake Forest’s former position in the bottom five is perennial censor and Lifetime Censorship Award-winner Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We regret the error.