A new survey shows a stunning number of college students support the idea of shouting down campus speakers they don't like or even using violence to shut them up.
In recent years, free speech on America's college campuses has come under scrutiny after numerous incidents were reported showing higher education institutions were stifling students' First Amendment rights. The so-called "thought police" can be so harsh that students are simply afraid to utter their opinion because they fear it could lead to run-ins with their peers or professors meaning lower grades or even worse.
A recent survey found that 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.
That startling statistic comes from the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in partnership with RealClearEducation, which was commissioned by College Pulse.
In the same poll, almost a quarter of the college students surveyed on 159 U.S. college campuses said it was acceptable to use violence to shut down a controversial speaker. Another 66% of respondents also supported shouting down a campus speaker with whom they did not agree.
The method of using violence to stop a campus speaker saw a 5-point increase over FIRE's 2020 report, according to the non-profit organization. When it comes to violent rejection of free speech, two elite women's colleges, Wellesley College and Barnard College top that list at 45% and 43% respectively.
Largest College Survey of Free Expression Ever Conducted
The rankings assess a school's free speech climate based upon the opinions of over 37,000 students at America's largest and most prestigious campuses. The results are based on 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."
According to FIRE, 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 geopolitical conflicts, to whether students hold back from openly sharing their views. You can find out more about the survey's methodology here.
The top five colleges where free speech is protected and valued:
- Claremont McKenna College
- University of Chicago
- University of New Hampshire
- Emory University
- Florida State University
The worst colleges for free speech at the bottom of the list of 159 schools:
- Boston College
- Wake Forest University
- Louisiana State University
- Marquette University
- DePauw University
You can explore the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings here.
"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 were scored on seven main components: openness to a 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, according to FIRE.
Sean Stevens, FIRE senior research fellow for polling and analytics, said a school's administration is in control of the climate for free thought and free expression on campus. Administrators need to take the lead to assure students their right to free speech will be recognized.
"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," Stevens noted. "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."
Other highlights from the 2021 report include:
- 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.
- Only a third of students say their college administration makes it either very or extremely clear that they will protect free speech on campus.
You can download the report here.
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.