On Wednesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released its annual College Free Speech Rankings. The rankings are derived from a survey of almost 45,000 college students at over 200 universities in the United States. The survey has been conducted since 2020, collecting a wide range of information about the campus political climate at a swath of universities.
"Schools that have an administration that's very strong on free expression issues…typically have done well in the rankings," FIRE Senior Research Fellow Sean Stevens tells Reason. "Interestingly, a number of these schools in the top five for sure, have some of the most ideologically diverse campuses."
The University of Chicago took the top spot this year, ranking first in the categories of Administrative Support (which "measures student perception of their college's support for free speech") and Tolerance for Speakers. Kansas State University took second place, followed by Purdue University, Mississippi State University, and Oklahoma State University. With the exception of the University of Chicago, the top five schools were generally very ideologically diverse, with neither liberals nor conservatives gaining more than a 2–1 ratio.
According to the survey results released by FIRE, both discomfort in expression and outright censoriousness of unpopular viewpoints continue to be common problems on American college campuses.
Sixty-four percent of students were worried a misunderstanding of something they say or do could damage their reputation. Forty-eight percent reported that they would be "very uncomfortable" or "somewhat uncomfortable" expressing their views on a controversial political topic to other students in a public space on campus. Thirty-eight percent expressed that they would be uncomfortable doing so during an in-class discussion. And rates of discomfort are comparable across racial categories: 32 percent of black respondents, 39 percent of white respondents, and 37 percent of Hispanic respondents felt that wariness about expressing themselves in class. More than 40 percent of Asian and American Indian students reported discomfort.
In contrast, FIRE found that rates of discomfort varied widely across different political identifications. Twenty-seven percent of students identifying as "strong democrats" reported being "somewhat" or "very" uncomfortable to share their opinion on a controversial political topic during in-class discussion, whereas 44 percent of "strong republicans" did. However, despite the partisan divide, discomfort about expressing opinions in class is present across the political spectrum, ranging from affecting slightly more than one in four "strong democrat" respondents to one in two "independent, lean republican" respondents.
Many students report a willingness to actively interfere with others' ability to see controversial campus speakers, with 32 percent finding it "sometimes" or "always" acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus. Only a small percentage of students reported that the use of violence to prevent an unpopular speaking event would be acceptable, with 79 percent of students reporting that it would "never" be acceptable.
In fairness, it is difficult to know what proportion of college students would actually participate in violence to stop an unpopular speech or participate in a speaker shout-down even if they expressed conditional support for it in survey responses. However, such responses do give us a general idea of how likely some college students are to approve of such actions, even if they had no intention of participating themselves.
These new FIRE data provide yet more evidence that there is a two-pronged free speech problem on American college campuses. First, many college campuses—including public universities—still have strict speech codes that limit students' free expression. Many schools are also prone to caving to pressure to censor public events or punish students and faculty who make controversial statements. These policies and actions present a clear danger to the speech rights of thousands of American college students.
However, a more subtle element of this problem also deserves attention. Even at schools that boast robust protections for student speech, there is an increasing problem of students being too uncomfortable to actually operate under the protections they've been given. They still worry about expressing themselves on contentious topics and in common spaces.
A campus political climate unfriendly to the principles of free expression is a problem far greater than an uncomfortable social environment. It poses a direct threat to students' ability to learn how to think and how to form coherent opinions. How can we expect a young person to understand why they believe something if they can't hear the other side's perspective in good faith? The ability to consider a complex issue from multiple viewpoints is an incredibly important trait, but with the current environment on many college campuses, too many young people may have a difficult time developing it.