FIRE’s annual award: The ten worst American colleges for free speech

February 18, 2021 • 10:30 am

It’s that time of year again: the time when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) awards its yearly “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” kudos. (The University of Chicago always gets the “Best College for Free Speech” award.) There are ten awards plus a lifetime award to a particularly censorious college. Click on the screenshot below to see the details. I’ll just name the colleges and give a few words about why they’re on the list.

Of course all public universities must adhere to the First Amendment. Several of the colleges singled out by FIRE are private schools, but they’ve also made a pledge to respect freedom of speech, a pledge that they violated.

The winners (i.e., losers), in no particular order. The offenses are given in much more detail in the article.

University of Tennessee, UT Health Science Center, Memphis, TN. A doctoral student in pharmacy was investigated for her excessive “sexuality” in her social-media posts, even though she didn’t identify herself as a student in the program. She’s sued the university.

St. John’s University, Queens, NY. A professor was removed from the classroom indefinitely for asking students whether the transatlantic slave trade had any positive effects on biodiversity. He didn’t try to justify slavery; this was part of a course on the effects of transatlantic ship traffic on biodiversity. He’s sued the University.

Collin College, McKinney, TX. A history professor criticized Mike Pence on Twitter during the Vice-Presidential debate, saying that the moderator “needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.”  The college issued a statement condemning her tweets and gave her a written warning despite the fact that her tweets were protected by the First amendment. Collin College then refused to renew her contract. Collin College did several other questionable things that are detailed in the piece.

Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, KS. This is a publicly-funded school. It kicked out a student during the pandemic, forcing him to sleep in his car, for criticizing a university official. It also tried to order the student newspaper not to criticize the University.

New York University, New York, NY. NYU’s school of medicine tried to prevent its doctors from making any public comments about the coronavirus without consulting the University. This constitutes “prior restraint”. (NYU is a private school but swears to uphold free speech.)

Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. A professor gave a student permission to say the n-word during a class discussion about why it’s inappropriate to use the word. The prof didn’t say the word, but allowed a student to do so pedagogically. The professor was removed from the class and then suspended for seven months without pay, including mandatory training.  The prof has hired an attorney.

Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD. Like NYU, this school told its employees not to speak to the media about how the school was handling the pandemic. (That’s illegal, as this is a public school.) It then investigated and harassed a reporter for the student newspaper who criticized the school’s pandemic response.

Northwestern University in Qatar, Doha, Qatar. This Qatari branch of the Chicago school canceled a rock band concert because the lead singer was openly gay, citing “safety concerns.” They had the event on the U.S. campus, but violated freedom of expression overseas.

University of Illinois at Chicago. A law professor asked a hypothetical question on a law-school exam using redacted words. The question included an assertion that a person said they were called “a ‘n______’ and ‘b_______’. (profane expressions for African Americans and women”  Yes, the words were censored on the exam. And how could he have posed a hypothetical any more sensitively? After all, to judge the case you need some idea how the words were used. Nevertheless, UIC opened an investigation into the professor’s exam. This is chilling of speech, pure and simple.

Fordham University, New York, NY. Fordham has repeatedly refused to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine because “its sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group.” This has been going on for four years. As I’ve said, I consider SJP an Islamist organization, but it’s both illegal and unethical to not recognize it when it recognizes other organizations with political agendas. The school also suspended a student for legal postings on his Instagram account.

And. . . . a school gets a Lifetime Censorship Award for repeated violations of its free-speech code! Voilà:

There’s too much to recount, but here’s one paragraph:

Even inaugurating a new chancellor in 2014 did not stem the tide of student rights abuses — Kent Syverud oversaw the dismantling of an entire engineering fraternity and the expulsion of several members in 2018 over their private satirical “roast.” Syracuse claims that the voluntary skit constituted “conduct that threatens the mental health” of others once it was leaked to the public — an assertion so preposterous that it led to lawsuits in state and federal court, where university attorneys attested, under oath, that the school’s speech promises are, in fact, worthless. Syracuse concluded the decade by rejecting a Young Americans for Freedom chapter over its conservative viewpoints, banning all fraternity social activity despite no evidence of misconduct by any of the students, and, most recently, placing a professor on leave for writing “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” on his course syllabus.

It’s sadly ironic that the university itself argues that its promises of free expression are worthless. Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be Syracuse students!

As a palliative, here are FIRE’s top five colleges for free speech:

  1. The University of Chicago
  2. Kansas State University
  3. Texas A&M University
  4. University of California, Los Angeles
  5. Arizona State University

We’re number one!

And as a downer, here’s some illegal chilling of speech on the high-school level (click on screenshot):

An excerpt (the whole article is quite interesting in showing how the school simply fired the coach for questioning the curriculum as a parent):

Judicial Watch announced today that it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of David Flynn, the father of two Dedham Public School students, who was removed from his position as head football coach after exercising his right as a citizen to raise concerns about his daughter’s seventh-grade history class curriculum being changed to include biased coursework on politics, race, gender equality, and diversity (Flynn v. Forrest et al. (No. 21-cv-10256)). 

The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, seeks damages against the superintendent, high school principal, and high school athletic director for retaliating against Flynn for exercising his First Amendment rights. 


14 thoughts on “FIRE’s annual award: The ten worst American colleges for free speech

  1. The U of I (Chicago) one seems especially egregious to me. Not necessarily worse in terms of impact or rights violation, but worse in terms of academics and ethics. They’re supposed to be preparing future lawyers for court. Lawyers have to handle cases of offensive speech as well as be able to discuss the relevance of epithets thrown around by defendants and plaintiffs in non-speech cases. The school here seems to be not just avoiding preparing them for real professional life, but punishing a professor for trying to do so.

    1. I remember several years ago when some law schools started allowing students to opt out of courses that included teaching laws about rape, sexual assault, etc., lest any students be made uncomfortable (or suffer “harm,” as I’m sure that word was used).

      1. That may do a disservice to the students, I don’t know, but at least it’s not actively preventing coverage of the material.

        Though maybe this one deserves a second look. I can think of three possibilities, one of which does not paint the professor in a good light.
        1. Professor made up a new hypothetical example just for the exam. I may not have much sympathy for him here. Make up a better example. Or better yet, use a real case.
        2. Professor cited a real court case but it was newly introduced as part of the exam. I’d side with the professor here, though not without question.
        3. His exam question asked about material (either a hypothetical or real case) covered in the coursework. In this case, the school’s response is ridiculous.

  2. The formal name is Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost.

    In their defense, they long held Darwin Days, and it was at one of them that I had an opportunity to shake hands with Judge Jones.

    OTOH, a colleague and collaborator there has been banned from entering his building since arriving by cross-town bicycle and entering the bldg before donning a mask, yet the security guard at that door was maskless. Since then he was a Pfizer trial volunteer and is now double-jabbed, but they still have not relented. Instead, he set up his own lab in his own warehouse and the research continues in the area of infectious diseases.

  3. Rather different from my time reading law in the 60s. One short course taken toward the end of the degree was Forensic Law. This was conducted through a joint effort by law and medical faculty staff. I recollect that the medics delighted in exhibiting their most horrific slides of murder and rape victims to us poor, innocent law students.

    Sorry, meant to be a reply to BJ on the first post.

  4. Re Collin College Tx – I should have thought that a professor would have expressed herself somewhat more diplomatically. Unfortunately, the twittrrverse seems to bring out the worst in people.

  5. A big shout out to the universities in the top five of the FIRE list.

    A special shout out to the august University of Chicago, not just for being #1, but also for being the only private university in the top 5 and thus not as restrained in its ability to restrict speech as are public universities. This reflects an admirable inherent vibrant intellectual culture and not just externally imposed restraints on restricting free speech.

  6. A doctoral student in pharmacy was investigated for her excessive “sexuality” in her social-media posts …

    The fuck does “excessive ‘sexuality'” in one’s social-media posts even mean? This doctoral student in pharmacy likes to listen to Cardi B on her own time and post about it? So? BFD. They gonna tag her with a Scarlet A? Who’s running the UT Health Science Center anyway, Cotton Mather? Anthony Comstock? They should mind their own damn business.

    Ain’t it time yet that the puritanical among us got past their fear of female sexuality?

  7. This Qatari branch of the Chicago school canceled a rock band concert because the lead singer was openly gay, citing “safety concerns.”

    Chrissake, can we send Northwestern’s Qatari branch a copy of this piece from The Onion?

Leave a Reply