College free speech rankings: best and worst (n.b.: U of C is number one)

Over at RealClearEducation, we see the results of a new survey of free speech on campus, which ranks 55 American colleges from best to worst in their free-expression policies and atmosphere. The novel thing about this survey is that the rankings were the results of polling the students themselves—20,000 of them. The survey was sponsored by College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation itself. You can see the results, and download the survey pdf, by clicking on the screenshot . below. To get the pdf of the full report, you have to enter your email and stuff (it’s free), but if you prefer not to just make a judicious inquiry of PCC(E):

A word about the methodology from the site:

In order to rank each college, we first created an overall measure of the free-speech climate of the campus called the Overall Score. This overall score is the sum of five part-scores: Openness to discuss challenging topics on campus; Tolerance for allowing controversial speakers on campus; Self-Expression, whether students have ever withheld their ideas due to how the expression would be received; Administrative Support, which is students’ perception about whether their college protects or punishes free speech; and the FIRE Speech Code Rating, which rates college policies on how they protect or restrict free speech.

That page further explains the five parts, but let’s get to the meat: the rankings themselves (you can see the overall rankings by clicking on the appropriate button on the page, as well as separate lists ranked by “conservative students” as well as “liberal students”. You can also do a comparison of up to four colleges side by side if free speech is important to you as a student or parent.

I’m pleased to say that, despite increasing pressure to tighten speech codes from students and some woke professors here, the University of Chicago is STILL #1 FOR FREE SPEECH in the overall rankings (we’re #1 for liberal students and #3 for conservative students).  Here are the overall rankings of the top ten and bottom ten:


The best:


Note that seven of the top ten are state schools (the exceptions are the private schools Brown, the University of Chicago, and Duke). There’s also an obvious correlation among all schools between the “liberal score” and the “conservative score”, showing that students’ perceptions of freedom of speech aren’t terribly distorted by their political views.

The worst:

Note that seven of the ten worst are private schools (Oklahoma State, Louisiana State, and UT Austin are the state schools). I haven’t looked to see if, in general, state schools are better for free speech, though they should be because they are obliged by law to conform to the stipulations of the First Amendment. Note, too, that Harvard is at the bottom, and it should be at the top.

Here’s the bad news: students still favor banning speakers from campus that have certain views. To wit: the “tolerance score” for a school was calculated by asking students how they felt about speakers promoting certain opinions:

“Would you support or oppose your school ALLOWING a speaker on campus who promotes the following idea:”

  • “Abortion should be completely illegal?”
  • “Black Lives Matter is a hate group?”
  • “Censoring the news media is necessary?”
  • “Some racial groups are less intelligent than others?”
  • “The U.S. should support Israeli military policy?”
  • “Transgender people have a mental disorder?”

Response options were coded on a four-point scale: Strongly support = 4 points, somewhat support = 3 points, somewhat oppose = 2 points, and strongly oppose = 1 point. Each question was weighed equally, for a maximum tolerance score of 24. This score was then rescaled to a maximum of 40 points in a college’s overall score.

They also added two questions to assess the willingness of students to hear speakers professing two sets of views: “All white people are racist,” and “Christianity has a negative influence on society.”

And the response:

The results were ominous for supporters of free expression on campus. For instance, the figure below, Support for Controversial Speakers, reveals that 71% of students would “strongly” oppose letting someone who advocates, “Some racial groups are less intelligent than others,” to speak on their college campus. Only a small minority (7%) of students would “strongly” support allowing such a person to speak on their campus. Similarly, a majority of students would strongly oppose allowing speakers on campus who say that transgender people have a mental disorder, and half would strongly oppose allowing speakers who say that the Black Lives Matter movement is a hate group (51% and 50% respectively). These two issues are bimodal, with approximately a 40-point gap between students who would strongly support or strongly oppose such speakers.


When the results were divided up by whether students were Democrats or Republicans, for all questions more Democrats than Republicans opposed allowing speakers on campus—except for two issues: the negative influence of Christianity on society (48% of Democratic students but 73% of Republican students oppose such speakers) and speakers saying “all white people are racist” (71% of Democrats oppose and 81% of Republicans oppose).

Remember, this last bit is about allowing speakers on campus who promote certain ideas. In an ideal college, you should support allowing speakers to express these ideas. Yes, some seem odious, but it’s precisely speakers with the most odious-sounding ideas that should be heard.  It’s not “greater or less than 50%” that’s important here, it’s that so few students support such speakers compared to those who oppose them. And, overall, Democrats were more censorious than Republicans. That, too, is a damn shame, as we’re supposed to favor freedom of speech.

So we have a bit of a dichotomy here: students know when their school favors free speech, but many of them don’t really favor free speech of the First Amendment stripe.  Go figure.

There’s lots more in the report that I can’t address, so if you’re interested, do get the pdf.


  1. jezgrove
    Posted September 29, 2020 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations to U of C. Harvard should hang its head in shame.

  2. Posted September 29, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    How ironic that 32% of people strongly oppose allowing someone to speak at their school on the subject, “Censoring the news media is necessary”.

  3. Posted September 29, 2020 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    So Evergreen State College wasn’t in the bottom ten???

  4. eric
    Posted September 29, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    These two issues are bimodal, with approximately a 40-point gap between students who would strongly support or strongly oppose such speakers.

    Am I understanding this correctly to mean that there’s two groups, one of which oppose (I’m simplifying here) allowing right-wing speakers and the other group which opposes allowing left-wing speakers, with essentially few to none of the respondents taking the traditional liberal position that all of them should be allowed?

    That’s really depressing. Though not, I guess, too surprising.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 29, 2020 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Can’t say I’m surprised. USians are all staunch proponents of free speech — for people they agree with. For the other side, not so much.

  5. Snake
    Posted September 29, 2020 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    We all know university league tables are nonsense. On the other hand, if my institution was first in this one, I’d be as proud as you are.

    • Posted September 29, 2020 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      No, we don’t ALL know that, but I gues you do. How much “nonsense” this result contains is not clear, but it does comport with other data, like over 55 other schools adopting the Chicago Principles.

      • Snake
        Posted September 29, 2020 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        Apologies for my flippancy and loose language Boss. We have a wide range of league tables here and management only report those in which we do well, ignoring those in which we rank poorly.

        A high ranking for freedom of speech, and especially where UC routinely ranks first is one in which you’re justifiably proud.

  6. Jimbo
    Posted September 29, 2020 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I liked this survey but I’m not sure how to judge the magnitude of the results given that the “oppose” column is so much greater than the “support” column. Doesn’t that simply imply that most humans have an intrinsic bias to avoid highly controversial topics? Aren’t pain and fear more motivating than pleasure and confidence? And inducing pain or fear more consequential? Isn’t this a normal and intuitive application of the precautionary principle? If this intrinsic bias is true, wouldn’t there be very few who strongly supported anything and certainly many more who opposed it strongly, regardless of the nature of the controversy?

  7. rickflick
    Posted September 30, 2020 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Shocking! Where do these students come from that they don’t understand this fundamental of a free society. Candidates should be required to watch Hitch on free speech before they are admitted.

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