FIRE’s choice of America’s ten worst colleges for free speech

February 2, 2023 • 9:35 am

It’s that time of year again: the time when the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) nominates its ten worst colleges of the year for free speech. (Their list of the best colleges is here, with the University of Chicago back up to #1.)

But today we get an honor roll of shame. Before giving that list, which is not ranked but contains ten miscreant colleges, I’ll show you the précis that came with their email. Note that Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., after appearing on this list for four years, has made the “lifetime censorship list.”:

Every year, FIRE names and shames the worst colleges in the United States for free speech. The new list is out, so please dig in. Frankly, there are some amazing entries this year. (Spoiler alert: art history professor fired for teaching art history, highly “sus” conduct around the airing of a documentary on … free speech, and a college that learned when you play games with faculty speech on FIRE’s watch, you get burned — and much, much more.)Many people get that we have fun with this list every year — guilty as charged. But on the inside? We’re just trying not to give in to despair. After all, it gets frustrating to have to repeatedly tell college and university administrators to stop violating student and faculty rights.Happily, we are making progress on that front, and sharing this list contributes to that progress. Every year, more and more people see the annual “10 Worst” list. More alumni leverage it to fight for change in their schools. Prospective students consider it when deciding where to spend their time and money. And, very often, a school that makes an appearance on the list does not make another one. Unfortunately, a few schools, like Yale UniversityDePaul UniversityRensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Syracuse University, make the list so often they merit special recognition, in the form of FIRE’s Lifetime Censorship Award. This year, Georgetown University’s breathtaking 112-day investigation into an incoming lecturer’s 45-word tweet earned it that infamous distinction. (By the way, we’ve made it easy for you to tell Georgetown’s president what you think — just click here.)

Click below to read: I’ll show the ten losers and give a few words (FIRE’s are indented, mine flush left):

Again, the order is random as FIRE doesn’t give a ranking. I’ve added links to the school names.

1.) Hamline University (Saint Paul, Minnesota)

Art history professor punished, called “Islamophobic” for showing 14th century painting depicting prophet Muhammad in art history class.

Hamline University, a Minnesota liberal arts college, made international headlines for illiberal art censorship after it punished a professor who dared to show historic Islamic art during a lesson on Islamic art history.

We’ve read about this several times on this site, and the faculty recently gave a big “no confidence” vote to Fayneese Miller, the school’s president. She will, I suspect, soon be gone, and Hamline is the butt of everyone’s jokes.

2.) Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania.

Nittany Lion or Cowardly Lion? Penn State cancels student group’s event after initially defending its right to proceed.

On October 24, Uncensored America was set to host Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and conservative comedian Alex Stein for a comedy show on campus. A planned protest formed outside the venue. But, amid reports that a few in that crowd of hundreds were involved in skirmishes, Penn State canceled the event before it even began. The university also told protesters to disperseciting “the threat of escalating violence.” Critically, the two violent incidents, one involving spitting, the other pepper spray, were caught on video showing police standing by doing nothing while students and a speaker were assaulted.

. . . One thing is clear: Penn State may defend free expression with words, but when actions are necessary, the university is all-too-willing to turn tail, fleeing from its First Amendment obligations and letting disruptors win.

Penn State didn’t come clean about the threats that supposedly led it to cancel the event, but simply said that it was a “safety risk” (FIRE had asked it to reveal the specific threats that led to the cancellation).

3.) Collin College (McKinney, Texas)

The lesson Collin College can’t seem to learn: When you play games with faculty speech on FIRE’s watch, you get burned.

Given that Collin College has earned a reputation as the “epicenter of censorship in Texas,” it is no surprise that the college makes its third straight appearance on our infamous list.

What did they do? Several things. They warned a history professor about her tweets about the Mike Pence-Kamala Harris debate (and lost a $70,000 lawsuit about that); it fired two professors, apparently for being officers in a non-bargaining faculty union (they’d also criticized the school’s handling of Covid-19), and for that lost another lawsuit and reinstated one professor; and it fired a history professor “for advocating for the removal of Confederate statues and criticizing the college’s COVID-19 policies” (that lawsuit is proceeding). FIRE has sued Collin College three times for violating faculty rights.

4.) Texas A&M  (College Station, Texas)

Texas A&M forgets the First Amendment, repeatedly ignores student groups’ rights.

Journalists, fish, and drag queens: Oh my! In 2022, Texas A&M University stepped on the rights of all kinds of student groups, from the university’s preeminent student paper, to several LGBTQ rights organizations, to a freshman orientation club.

The University violated the rights of several student organizations, all in a singe year.

5.) University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Penn Law dean pressured to “do something” about controversial professor, opts to abandon academic freedom.

Penn Law is willfully ignoring its commitment to free speech and academic freedom in an effort to oust Amy Wax, the tenured professor whose controversial comments on race and immigration have come to define her academic career.

Wax, who spoke at the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference, has made quite a few controversial remarks, and I consider some of them to be offensive and borderline racist. But the university, which should have left her alone, instituted disciplinary charges, including causing “harm.” It is these hard cases where free speech must be defended most vigorously. Although Penn is a private school, it has a strong open expression code that “supports and cherishes the concepts of freedom of thought, inquiry, speech, and lawful assembly.”

6.)  Emerson (Boston, Massachusetts)

Emerson still “kinda sus,” prevents student group from advertising a documentary about — drumroll please — free speech.

First, they were guilty of “suspending and investigating” Turning Point USA for distributing stickers on campus reading “China Kinda Sus,” clearly meaning “China Kinda Sucks”. The admin then put a formal warning on the group’s record.  Sorry, but that’s free speech. But that still wasn’t enough: they continued to overturn free speech:

. . . college administrators denied TPUSA’s request to screen a CBS News documentary about free speech on campus because of alleged factual inaccuracies in the promotional material. Then, it denied approval to post promotional materials for another documentary because the advertisements would provoke “negative responses.”

As I recall, this isn’t Emerson’s first brush with restricting speech.

7.)  Emporia State (Emporia, Kansas)

Emporia State seizes opportunity to axe both tenure protections and 33 faculty members.

Last fall, Emporia State University seized the opportunity to spurn academic freedom and effectively end tenure protections. Under a newly adopted policy, it fired more than 30 faculty members — including one whose newspaper op-ed criticizing the school’s then-impending decision opened with: “I may be fired for writing this.”

They then instituted a policy that allowed them to fire faculty, including tenured faculty, for all kinds of wonky and unjustifiable reasons—and with 30 days notice!

8.) Tennessee Tech (Cookeville, Tennessee)

FIRE dresses down Tennessee Tech for punishing student groups over drag show.

Oldham canceled all campus events of the Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance and the Tech Players student groups after a video of their August 2022 drag show surfaced online. Speaking to the entire campus community, Oldham proclaimed that he was “disturbed,” “dismayed,” and “offended by” the show’s apparent “disparaging mockery toward any religious group.” He banned the students from hosting campus events “pending a review,” which is still ongoing. No disciplinary charges, no hearing, no chance to contest this clearly unlawful prior restraint, just five months (and counting) of censorship for wounding Oldham’s delicate sensibilities.

This is a state school and the censorship above violates the First Amendment. FIRE has complained, but there appear to be no results yet.

9.) The University of Oregon (Eugene, Oregon)

University of Oregon puts words in teachers’ mouths, requires faculty to submit DEI statements to be eligible for hiring, promotion, and tenure.

Are you surprised? The U of O requires all current and prospective faculty to submit DEI statements to be eligible for hiring, promotion, or tenure. This is the first time I’ve seen FIRE go after these statements, which are ubiquitous in America, and are ripe for a lawsuit based on compelled speech. All that’s needed is one person with “standing”: a faculty member who hasn’t been promoted or given tenure because of insufficient DEI statements, or someone not hired on the grounds of a flawed DEI statement (the last one would be hard to prove). But this will happen, and DEI statements will become banned in all state schools or those receiving federal funds. From FIRE:

Oregon. . . directed faculty search committees to use a rubric when evaluating DEI statements, which are intended to further UO’s goals of “becoming an institution committed to antiracism and other forms of anti-oppression.” The rubric gives low scores to an applicant who, for example, says “it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued,” or describes “only activities that are already the expectation of faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc.).”

On the other hand, applicants who discuss DEI as a “core [value] that every faculty member should actively contribute to advancing,” and applicants or faculty members who intend to be “strong advocate[s]” for DEI, will earn high scores. This ideological litmus test applies to tenure-track faculty, faculty seeking promotion or tenure, faculty undergoing tenure review, and prospective faculty. Basically, if you want to work at UO, you have to pledge allegiance to and promote administrators’ DEI vision.

These requirements violate faculty’s freedom of expression and academic freedom, as we told the university. Just imagine if a public university bound by the First Amendment (as the University of Oregon is) evaluated faculty based on their commitment to patriotism or color-blindness or socialism.

Berkeley and other state schools use rubrics as well. In my view they are unconstitutional and thus illegal, and I’d love to see somebody file a lawsuit. Fortunately, we don’t use them at the University of Chicago, for they are implicitly forbidden by our Shils Report.

10.) Loyola University New Orleans (New Orleans, Louisiana). 

LOYNO sanctions professor, stifles student’s protected speech.

Loyola University New Orleans spent the last two-and-a-half years subjecting professor Walter Block to investigations and sanctions for his protected speech. Despite its strong promises of free speech and academic freedom, the university targeted Block for everything from his teaching of particular economic theories to his classroom discussions of Gandhi and Hitler.

After a June 2020 student-created petition calling for Block’s termination began circulating, LOYNO defended Block’s classroom speech. But it didn’t have his back for long. In 2021, Loyola determined that some of Block’s teachings on the gender wage gap and the economics of slavery created a “hostile learning environment.” It forced Block to undergo mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training.

After this, Block’s speech received more complaints and he had to take yet more training. Loyola is a private Jesuit university, so Block’s speech may not be protected, but all colleges should adhere to First-Amendment principles. I’m not sure what he said about Gandhi and Hitler, as not all classroom “speech” is protected. Loyola, however, makes strong promises of free speech. Further, the administration “cracked down on a student promoting a pro-choice march.”

You can read the details for each University by going to the site, and also see the lifetime raspberry that Georgetown University got:

Because this is the fourth time Georgetown appeared on this list (last year it suspended a faculty member for critical tweets about the new Supreme Court justice nominee), it makes the lifetime censorship list.  And there’s more:

For years, the university refused to recognize the pro-choice student group H*yas for Choice. It argued that doing so would conflict with its Catholic and Jesuit mission. But the university’s speech and expression policy explicitly states that only “time, place and manner” considerations can govern “the expression of ideas and sharing of information that is the very life of the university.” What’s more, H*yas for Choice was denied recognition despite the existence of recognized groups of Muslim and Jewish students who, by their nature, explicitly reject Catholic beliefs.

Let’s also not forget that Georgetown stopped students from tabling for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign — an action so censorial it drew the attention of Congress. There was also the time its satellite campus in Qatar shut down a debate about whether God should be portrayed as a woman. It’s no surprise then, that Georgetown ranks near the very bottom of FIRE’s annual College Free Speech Rankings.

For these reasons, Georgetown joins Yale University, DePaul University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Syracuse University as a recipient of FIRE’s infamous Lifetime Censorship Award.

Raspberries to these schools!

16 thoughts on “FIRE’s choice of America’s ten worst colleges for free speech

  1. “… stickers on campus reading “China Kinda Sus,” clearly meaning “China Kinda Sucks”.”

    No – this means “suspicious”. Perhaps some could construe it as “sucks” but it means “suspicious”. I’d have to read about it but pfff…

    I wish I didn’t know that (or, didn’t understand, as it were).

    It is a 2020s youth culture language thing.

    BTW the subscribe thing isn’t working.

  2. I’m looking forward to seeing a good lawsuit regarding DEI statements and faculty hiring/promotions. It’ll be costly at the start, but lucrative in the end. Perhaps even a class action suit would be appropriate, as entire categories of people are compelled to affirm their allegiance to DEI ideology. Once universities are forced to pay, they will quietly dismantle these illegal policies. It’ll happen.

  3. I am disappointed that FIRE has not recognized my own institution for its meteoric drop in free speech ranking. There should be a special award for a university which has dropped so far so fast, as noted in the Center Square report quoted below.

    ” The University of Washington ranks in the lowest 10% among more than 200 universities for freedom of speech.

    …UW ranked 188 of the 208 schools surveyed in 2022, down from 53rd of 154 schools in 2021 and 15th of 55 in 2020. Measured in percentages, the University’s rank dropped from the upper 30% to the bottom 10% in two years.

    In 2022 the lowest criterion rankings were in comfort expressing ideas, 176th; administrative support, 173rd; disruptive conduct, 134th; and openness, 132nd. The report noted two instances in which scholars were sanctioned by the administration for the exercise of free speech between 2019 and 2022. “

  4. As a former Jesuit, I was somewhat dismayed to see Loyola University Louisiana included in the worst colleges on free speech based on the fact that they reprimanded Professor Walter Block for creating a “hostile learning environment.” I did a quick search on Wiki for professor Block and found this:

    “Block believes that people should have the legal right to sell themselves into slavery, or to buy and keep slaves who have sold themselves into slavery.”

    And this:

    “A January 2014 article in the New York Times stated that Block suggested in an interview that the daily life of the enslaved was ‘not so bad – you pick cotton and sing songs.’”

    Given that 49% of the students at Loyola are minorities or people of color one can understand why Block’s views might cause a “hostile learning environment.” I too am something of an absolutist on freedom of speech, but in this case it seems to me that FIRE’s depiction of the university as trying to “make sure that Block’s protected speech did not harm the precious minds of his students” is gratuitously callous.

    1. Loyola was, if memory serves, Ignatius J. Reilly’s (and Myrna Minkoff’s) alma mater. (I don’t recall whether this was made express in the novel or merely implied by the nature and location of Reilly’s eight years of study).

      It was also (again, if memory serves) where novelist Walker Percy taught, which is why the late author’s mother felt she could foist the dog-eared manuscript on him.

  5. The case of U Penn’s Amy Wax (who has certainly made many controversial arguments, but is also, without question, extremely intelligent as well as very well-read and highly articulate) is especially troubling, as she is currently under “investigation” by a board of eight at Penn whilst battling cancer. The board’s recommendation may well turn out to be for dismissal for her having expressed certain opinions deemed unacceptable.

      1. Item #5 about Amy Wax at UPenn identifies University of Pennsylvania as “the public university, which should have left her alone.”

  6. As expected, the list of 10 worst Free Speech colleges contains what I think is a healthy mixture of both conservative and liberal administrations violating the right to voice unpopular opinions.

  7. As egregious as these cases of censorship are, the FIRE list itself seems biased toward cases where conservative/anti-woke views are being squelched, or woke views are being promoted. Meanwhile, the list totally overlooks the numerous cases of censorship involving the squelching of evolutionary theory to advance creationism. Consider this list of creationism-friendly colleges and universities: Some of these are straight-up bible colleges, but others present themselves as real universities, which just happen to subscribe to a biblical worldview that is intolerant of evolutionary theory. For example, Cedarville University in Ohio has this “doctrinal statement:” Cedarville is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which is the same regional accrediting body (recognized by the US Dept of Education) that accredits public universities throughout the Midwest, including my own. There is a similar story at Patrick Henry College, which has a “Statement of Biblical Worldview” to which all faculty must attest: This statement is not only anti-evolution but also anti-LGBTQ, anti-women’s rights, and antiabortion. PHC is accredited by SACS, which also accredits Southeastern colleges universities from Texas to Virginia. PHC administrators tout accreditation as a stamp of approval to “pursue our calling to be a beacon of light and truth.” Yuck. FIRE is about “individual rights” so maybe they are okay with universities that constitute themselves of individual people who have freely chosen to accept this ideological conformity. But what of students who develop doubts along the way? Overall, these Christian colleges seems far more toxic and coercive than any of the cases on FIRE’s list.

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