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The Worst Colleges for Free Speech in America

Every year, FIRE chooses the 10 worst colleges for free speech — and unfortunately, 2017 left us with plenty of options.
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Every year, FIRE chooses the 10 worst colleges for free speech — and unfortunately, 2017 left us with plenty of options: Campuses were rocked by violent mob censorship, monitored by bias response teams, plagued by free speech zones, and beset by far too many disinvitation attempts. Although the number of colleges with the most restrictive speech codes has continued to decline, 90 percent of schools still maintain codes that either clearly restrict or could too easily be used to restrict free speech.Today, we present our 2018 list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech. As always, our list is presented in no particular order, and it includes both public and private institutions. Public colleges and universities are bound by the First Amendment; the private colleges on this list, though not required by the Constitution to protect student and faculty speech rights, explicitly promise to do so.

A new feature of this year's list is our Lifetime Censorship Award. This "honor" goes to the one college or university that is so frequently discussed as a contender for our annual "worst colleges for free speech" list that it deserves special recognition. This year, that school is DePaul University.

Are you a student or faculty member whose free speech rights are imperiled on campus? Submit a case to FIRE. Also, check out FIRE's Guides to Student Rights on Campus to help you fight for free speech, due process, religious liberty, and more.

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.)

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, nestled in eastern New York, has a long history of censoring anything controversial, from criticism of the Iraq War to critics of that criticism. In 2017, RPI continued that tradition, working (literally) day and night to censor students. The target? Students who criticized what they perceive to be RPI administrators' attempts to take over the Rensselaer Union — an organization and facility that has been independently operated by RPI students for over a century.

Last fall, students were required to ask administrators' permission to hold a peaceful demonstration outside a black-tie fundraiser held by RPI's president, Shirley Ann Jackson. Administrators denied that request — the second time they had denied "Save the Union" advocates permission to hold a demonstration. To add insult to injury, RPI administrators tore down "Save the Union" signs before dawn — an act of censorship caught on video — and erected fences to keep student protesters away from would-be donors.

After students peacefully demonstrated anyway, RPI brought charges against "leaders" of the demonstration — identified as "leaders" on the basis that they spoke to local television stations. One student was charged under a policy barring commercial solicitation for distributing a letter criticizing the administration. These charges were dropped only after months of criticism from FIRE.

RPI's conduct earned it letters from both FIRE and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which criticized RPI's use of an "apparently non-existent policy" to penalize critics of the administration. In response to FIRE, RPI claimed student expression would not be punished "provided it is within the realm of civil discourse (e.g., not hate speech or threatening)." RPI has no written policy requiring "civil discourse," but it does have a "red light" speech code rating from FIRE for other policies restricting student expression.

Drexel University (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Drexel University makes promises to protect professors' speech rights, but the university's treatment of Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher makes clear it does not keep them.

The trouble for Ciccariello-Maher began on Dec. 24, 2016, when he tweeted "All I Want For Christmas is White Genocide," which he said was "a satirical tweet about an imaginary concept, 'white genocide.'" Perhaps predictably, a backlash ensued — one that was fueled in significant part by accounts operated by the Russia-based and Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency. Drexel initially promised Ciccariello-Maher that he would not face punishment for the tweet, but the red light institution quietly launched an investigation anyway.

FIRE wrote to Drexel on June 2, 2017, reminding the university of its commitments to free expression and warning that its investigation of Ciccariello-Maher contradicted those promises. Rather than admit its mistake, Drexel refused to drop its investigation and then barred Ciccariello-Maher from campus in October, citing threats from those outraged by his tweets. When FIRE asked Drexel to provide basic information regarding its decision to ban Ciccariello-Maher, the university refused. Finally, one year after the controversy began, Ciccariello-Maher resigned from his "unsustainable" position, noting, "We are all a single outrage campaign away from having no rights at all, as my case and many others make clear."

Ciccariello-Maher was right to say there are "many others" like him. Just last year, faculty at schools including the University of Tampa, Essex County College, Montclair State University, California State University, Fresno, and Trinity College faced suspensions, investigations, and even firings in response to outrage campaigns.

Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.)

To make the list for the fourth time, all Harvard University really had to do was continue unabated on the campaign against free association that landed it on this list last year.

Harvard did just that, and the blacklist policy to deny certain academic and leadership privileges to members of single-gender groups like sororities, fraternities, and final clubs is still on track to be implemented this semester. But, always the overachievers, Harvard's administration cemented their case with two additional free speech controversies.

First, Harvard rescinded offers of admission from 10 students for sharing joke images in a private group chat on Facebook. Had those students matriculated to Harvard, subjecting them to punishment would have been in violation of Harvard policy. But as the students had only been admitted, Harvard, under the cover of that technicality, deemed them unworthy of protection.

Ironically, this happened only a week after we praised Harvard President Drew Faust for a powerful commencement address in support of free speech on college campuses. She said, in part: "Our values and our theory of education rest on the assumption that members of our community will take the risk of speaking and will actively compete in our wild rumpus of argument and ideas. It requires them as well to be fearless in face of argument or challenge or even verbal insult."

Harvard's administration had another opportunity to demonstrate that very same fearlessness when it received criticism from the intelligence community for extending a visiting fellowship to court-martialed former U.S. intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Instead, it almost immediately buckled to pressure and revoked the fellowship. Harvard's speed to cave under external criticism further undermines its commitment to the "wild rumpus of ideas."

With President Faust resigning at the conclusion of this academic year, we hope that her successor, former Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow, will address Harvard's red light speech code rating and demonstrate the commitment to defending free speech that Faust's administration lacked. However, given that Bacow's tenure at Tufts was marred by several speech controversies of its own, we are less than optimistic.

Los Angeles Community College District (Los Angeles, Calif.)

According to the Los Angeles Community College District, all of the grounds on its nine campuses — comprising the largest community college district in the country — are off-limits to free speech, except administratively designated "free speech zones." The breadth and severity of its speech restrictions, affecting over 150,000 students in the district, earns LACCD a spot on this year's list.

Last year, a student at one district campus, Los Angeles Pierce College, decided to push back. On March 28, 2017, Pierce student Kevin Shaw filed a lawsuit with FIRE's help against administrators at LACCD and Pierce College after he was told he could not hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on behalf of Young Americans for Liberty outside the college's tiny free speech zone. The zone is about the size of three parking spaces and makes up about .003 percent of the campus. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in Shaw's case, arguing that he successfully alleged First Amendment violations.

Just last month, the court rejected LACCD administrators' attempt to dismiss Shaw's lawsuit, which is part of our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. In an opinion from the United States District Court for the Central District of California, the court ruled that open, outdoor areas of Pierce's campus are public forums for student speech, whether or not school policy attempts to label them otherwise.

Fordham University (New York, N.Y.)

What's worse than making this list in 2017? Finding yourself back on it in 2018.

In late 2016, Fordham University's United Student Government Senate and Executive Board granted approval to a prospective chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. However, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge overruled the USG and denied recognition to SJP, writing that he "cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country" and that "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ... often leads to polarization rather than dialogue."

On Jan. 25, 2017, FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Fordham (which also earns a red light speech code rating from FIRE), calling on the university to reverse its rejection of SJP in keeping with its free speech promises. Instead, Fordham doubled down and even went so far as to sanction students protesting the university's decision, which cemented its place on last year's "10 Worst" list.

But the story didn't end there. Members of the prospective SJP chapter fought back and filed a lawsuit against Fordham on April 26, 2017. Again, rather than admitting its errors, Fordham continued to stand by its disregard for free association, earning its title as one of 2018's worst. On Jan. 3, Fordham defended its actions in court by offering a shifting array of justifications for its behavior, each less believable than the last, eventually claiming that the students could start a group, so long as it didn't use the "Students for Justice in Palestine" name — a claim that directly contradicts the university's written explanations for why it denied official recognition to the group.

Evergreen State College (Olympia, Wash.)

One year ago, this small, liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington was unknown to most of the country. Now it has achieved a kind of infamy, at least in higher education circles.

It started when Evergreen State College staff decided to invert their annual "Day of Absence." Traditionally, that's a day when people of color leave the campus to illustrate how much the community depends on them. In 2017, however, Evergreen's administration decided to ask white people to leave campus instead.

Biology Professor Bret Weinstein responded to this request on a staff and faculty email list, objecting to the idea of asking people to leave rather than having a group voluntarily leave. Weinstein's message ended with: "On a college campus, one's right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color."

Some weeks later, after the Day of Absence had passed, 50 students showed up outside Weinstein's class. They shouted and chanted until he came out, accusing him of racism and demanding his resignation. They yelled over him when he tried to talk and blocked him when he tried to leave. Students then occupied the library, surrounding the college president's office. They reportedly blocked entrances with furniture.

Weinstein and his wife, also a professor, were unable to return safely to campus and left their jobs; the school would end up paying a $500,000 settlement to the pair.

Protest is good. Calls for censorship are not. Disagreeing over how to stand up for diversity is not a good reason to intimidate or attempt to silence anyone.

FIRE wrote to Evergreen in December about its red light speech code rating and received no response.

Albion College (Albion, Mich.)

In September, Albion College student Alex Tokie sent an email to his fellow College Republicans with a number of suggestions about debating "white privilege." As a joke, he concluded his email by suggesting to his peers: "Take the liberal tears from the idiot you just destroyed in your debate, dissemble your American made Springfield M1911 .45 caliber handgun and apply the tears in order to clean the mechanism, reassemble and proceed to purchase ANTIFA and ISIS hunting permits and max out on tags[.]"

That email marked the beginning of an investigation that has spanned nearly six months.

Administrators first began investigating Tokie in September, and notified him in November that he was charged with violating Albion's policy against the "[u]se of, or threatened use of, physical force or violence."

After a letter from FIRE reminding Albion of its free speech commitments, the college postponed Tokie's Nov. 17 hearing, but it left him in limbo for weeks without any updates. Administrators finally contacted Tokie in December to reschedule his hearing, demanding he return to campus during winter break, or the hearing would be held in his absence.

Fortunately, Tokie was instead able to schedule his hearing for Jan. 26, but his ordeal isn't over yet. Administrators put Tokie through a four-hour hearing, and then told him that it could be weeks before they determine his fate. Tokie is still awaiting the outcome.

No college promising free expression should put students through months-long investigations for jokes. Those that do can expect to find themselves on this list.

Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.)

Demanding a professor turn over confidential source material as part of a secret investigation into their writing is a surefire way to grab FIRE's attention. If it's Northwestern University making that demand, it's a surefire way to end up back on this list.

Northwestern last made an appearance on this list in 2016, following two of the worst attacks on academic freedom that we have seen in recent years. The first was the 70-day "Title IX inquisition" of Professor Laura Kipnis for, ironically, writing an essay critical of Title IX abuses. The second was the censorship of a faculty-produced bioethics journal over concerns that one of its articles might hurt the medical school's "brand." The school also created an oversight committee to review the journal's content prior to publication, which prompted the journal's then-editor, Professor Alice Dreger, to resign in protest.

Last February, an ad hoc committee on academic freedom issued a report to the Northwestern Faculty Senate addressing "serious violations of academic freedom" stemming from the Kipnis and Dreger affairs. The report recognized that Northwestern had "taken steps to prevent a recurrence of the Kipnis episode" that included policy revisions, and that had the revisions "been in place at the time of the complaint against Kipnis, it is likely that no investigation would have taken place."

But the committee was wrong. Only a few months after the committee issued its report, Kipnis was indeed the subject of a yet another Northwestern Title IX investigation — this time for writing "Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus," a book about being investigated for saying there are too many Title IX investigations. The investigation lasted a month, during which Kipnis was asked to respond to at least 80 written questions about her book and to provide her source material. She was also urged to keep the investigation confidential.

Although Kipnis was — yet again — found not responsible for violating any Northwestern policies, the arduous process was itself a form of punishment, and the inevitable chilling effect of the investigation on other Northwestern scholars cannot be discounted. For its part, Northwestern seemed to dismiss the ad hoc committee on academic freedom's report, and it still maintains a mountain of yellow light speech codes that continue to threaten speech on campus.

University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, Calif.)

Just as the 1964 Free Speech Movement was a watershed moment for campus speech rights, so too were the events that occurred at the University of California, Berkeley last year — this time for more inauspicious reasons.

On Feb. 1, 2017, the campus erupted into violence. Former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was set to speak and an estimated 1,500 people showed up to protest, some with the goal of shutting down the speech "by any means necessary." Protesters set fires, hurled Molotov cocktails, and allegedly assaulted other members of the crowd. Their efforts were successful. The speech was canceled. There was $100,000 worth of damage. In an essay for the Berkeley student newspaper, one student wrote, "Behind those bandanas and black T-shirts were the faces of your fellow UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College students."

After the riot, things did not quiet down:

  • A September appearance by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro cost the university $600,000 to secure, and a total of $800,000 was spent on security for a planned appearance by conservative commentator Ann Coulter and another appearance by Yiannopoulos.
  • In April, a student group had to cancel an appearance by conservative activist David Horowitz because the event couldn't be held at a time and location that would ensure adequate attendance due to security concerns.
  • There was also an incident involving a Berkeley student destroying a College Republicans sign. It was caught on video and the student was eventually arrested.

After its initial failure in securing and investigating the Feb. 1 riot, the Berkeley administration has admirably reasserted the right to free speech on campus: It provided the necessary security for the aforementioned campus speeches, it hired a new chancellor who declared a "Free Speech Year," and it unveiled a new policythat eliminates some of the hurdles to hosting an on-campus event.

However, despite these recent efforts, a culture that is protective of free speech sometimes depends on more than well-meaning administrators. What's more, Berkeley still has a yellow light speech code rating from FIRE. We hope that Berkeley's efforts to rebound from last year's free speech battles result in a cultural shift on campus and the reform of its speech codes. If so, we look forward to removing the school from this list next year.

Texas State University (San Marcos, Texas)

Want to write a provocative newspaper article to spark discussion about a contemporary social or political issue? Better think twice if you attend Texas State University.

In November, independent Texas State newspaper The University Star published an editorial by opinion columnist Rudy Martinez. The editorial, titled "Your DNA is an abomination," argued that race is a social construct used to oppress minorities, and that "whiteness" should be destroyed, stating about those who he believes choose to identify as white: "I hate you because you shouldn't exist."

The campus erupted in a predictable frenzy of outrage. TXST's Student Government president threatened to attack the paper's funding unless its editor-in-chief, the opinions editor, and Rudy Martinez all resigned. Other students began a petition to strip The University Star of its funding. Judy Oskam, director of TXST's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, announced that she was forming a committee to review the newspaper's editorial process.

FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to TXST President Denise Trauth, reminding her that any attack on the newspaper's funding because of its published content would violate the First Amendment. We also pointed out that interference with the editorial process by a review committee would constitute an infringement on press freedoms.

TXST's response to our letter contained factual inaccuracies and half-hearted deflections, including a claim that the university abandoned the idea of a review committee for unstated reasons, and without announcing as much. Conspicuously absent from TXST's response was any concrete commitment to safeguarding students' First Amendment rights. For this yellow light institution's contribution to a chill on expressive rights on campus, TXST has earned its place on this year's list of worst colleges for free speech.

Lifetime Censorship Award: DePaul University (Chicago, Ill.)

DePaul University's selection as the inaugural recipient of this "award" stems from its previous appearances on this list and from its decade-long rap sheet of censorship spanning the ideological spectrum.

  • In 2005, DePaul refused to allow posters criticizing controversial professor Ward Churchill because they were "propaganda."
  • In 2006, DePaul charged a student group with harassment for holding an event that satirized affirmative action.
  • In 2010, a student organization criticizing marijuana laws was denied recognition because the university disagreed with its message.
  • In 2013, DePaul charged a student with conduct violations for identifying the students who had vandalized his group's pro-life display on campus.

The state of free speech at DePaul didn't improve in 2016 or 2017. Administrators required the College Republicans to pay for 20 security officers for an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos — officers who did nothing when disruptions materialized, preventing the event from moving forward. When the College Republicans sought to reschedule, DePaul said it "would not be possible for DePaul to provide security," and, in any event, Yiannopoulos' words were "inflammatory." When another conservative group sought to bring conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro to campus, administrators vetoed that invitation. DePaul then requireda socialist student organization to pay for security officers to monitor a discussion with the author of a book about Karl Marx because, DePaul said, it was "potentially controversial."

DePaul's requirement that students pay for security officers to monitor their discussions led us to ask whether DePaul was America's worst school for free speech.

In May, the university may have answered our question by enacting new "guiding principles" promising free speech — and then promptly ignoring them. After a student organization invited conservative commentator and author Jamie Kirchick, known for his argument that gay rights are imperiled in Russia and Islamic countries, DePaul forbade the group from using the slogan "Gay Lives Matter" to promote the event because it would "be co-opting another movements [sic] approach."

While it was a slight improvement that DePaul let the students hear from a speaker of their choice, requiring students to get an administrator's permission to use a particular slogan is inconsistent with the freedom of expression DePaul promises its students. We asked DePaul to respond to our letter and said that, if it didn't, "we will assume that DePaul intends to continue making promises it has no intention to keep." DePaul never responded, thus finding itself the inaugural recipient of our Lifetime Censorship Award recognizing the university as the worst of the worst schools for free speech.

The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE's core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.

Originally posted at Fire.


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