Feature:Opinion

The top 12 worst colleges for free speech

Photo of Robert Shibley
Robert Shibley
Senior Vice President, FIRE

Who doesn’t love a good awards show? The gowns, the acceptance speeches, the brutal infringements of civil liberties … the excitement just never ends.

Once again, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), has sorted through the hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation that severely restrict the First Amendment rights of their students, and is ready to present a “dirty dozen” of colleges that have attacked freedom of speech with such zeal that we cannot help but (dis)honor them. While it was difficult to choose from such a wide talent pool, certain schools took our breath away with their dazzling performances. So here, in no particular order, are the winners of this year’s 12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech:

  1. University of Cincinnati
  2. Syracuse University
  3. Widener University
  4. Harvard University
  5. Yale University
  6. St. Augustine’s College
  7. Michigan State University
  8. Colorado College
  9. Johns Hopkins University
  10. Tufts University
  11. Bucknell University
  12. Brandeis University

Of course, every good awards show needs an introductory video. So please sit back and join us in recognizing the tireless efforts of just a few of the winners: Brandeis University, the University of Cincinnati and St. Augustine’s College.

Let’s start with St. Augustine’s, which made the list by banning student Roman Caple from his graduation ceremony for advising his fellow students on Facebook to be prepared when they attended a meeting with campus administrators about the school’s recovery from a destructive tornado. In the eyes of St. Augustine’s administrators, Caple’s posting constituted “an attempt to create chaos.” Caple, the first in his family to graduate from college, instead had to pick up his diploma from campus police at a security booth. And when he sued, the college decided to ban him from next year’s homecoming. You have to doff your hat to that kind of petty revenge.

Brandeis University delivered a stunning performance when it disciplined Professor Donald Hindley, a nearly 50-year veteran of teaching, for denouncing the use of the term “wetbacks” in his Latin American Politics course. Of course, Hindley had to actually say the word in order to criticize its use. This was a major mistake, as minor details like logic and reason did not prevent Brandeis from declaring him guilty of racial harassment and placing a monitor in his class, all without a formal hearing or written notice of the actual accusations against him. Thankfully, Brandeis has a new president; let’s hope he sees fit to end this embarrassment by reversing Hindley’s harassment finding.

The University of Cincinnati (UC) earns its “honor” by managing to distinguish itself among the many schools that limit student speech to unconstitutional “free speech zones.” Out of the 137 acres of the UC West Campus, the school limits “all demonstrations, pickets, and rallies” to a “Free Speech Area” that comprises 0.1% of it. And if students do not request permission to use that 0.1% of campus a full 10 working days in advance, they “may be charged with trespassing.” When a student group requested permission to collect signatures to support a statewide ballot initiative outside of this tiny zone, UC told them that campus security would be alerted if any of its members dared to “walk around” outside the zone gathering signatures. In other words, UC students can apparently walk around wherever they like on campus — as long as they’re not exercising a First Amendment right at the same time.

Of course the list doesn’t stop there, with the Harvard faculty firing a professor because he wrote an op-ed that was controversial — in India! — to Syracuse University’s effective expulsion of a student for complaining on his own Facebook page about a racially insulting comment he had heard. Students and parents would be well advised to check the list before attending a college or university. After all, does any student really want to play a starring role in next year’s blockbuster attacks on student freedom?

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).