The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has announced its list of America’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech, targeting institutions large and small that the civil liberties nonprofit says violate First Amendment principles.
The list serves as a highlight reel of campus free speech controversies in 2022, starting with Hamline University, where an art professor sparked controversy by displaying 14Thursday century image of the Prophet Muhammad, which some Muslims consider offensive. Hamline called the professor’s actions “Islamophobic” and did not rehire her for the spring semester. The university also issued a statement saying “respect for observant Muslim students in this class should have superseded academic freedom,” which it later retracted after a lawsuit by the professor. Hamline is currently under investigation by the American Association of University Professors for her handling of the case.
As in the past, FIRE targeted schools whose actions fell on both the left and right sides of the culture war. Penn State University was included after it canceled an event featuring Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and conservative comedian Alex Stein, citing safety concerns, and Emerson College was accused of suspending a campus chapter of Turning Point USA for distributing stickers that read “China Kinda Sus”. and denied her request to screen the documentary on freedom of speech. On the other hand, Tennessee Tech earned a spot for canceling Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance campus events in response to a video of its drag show, and Texas A&M was cited for ceasing sponsorship of an annual drag show and denying students access to the previous year’s proceeds.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts were the focus of another entry. The University of Oregon (UO) drew the ire of FIRE over its rubric for evaluating DEI statements from prospective faculty and faculty seeking promotion or tenure. The UO directed the committees to downgrade the DEI statement, saying that it is better not to have outreach or affinity groups for underrepresented students, as this would keep them separate from everyone else. FIRE described it as an “ideological litmus test” that “forced faculty to pledge allegiance to questionable ideological views.” UO ignored FIRE’s protests and kept the rubric.
In addition to its top 10 list, FIRE also presented a “Lifetime Censorship Award” at Georgetown University. Georgetown has appeared on the list four times since 2015 due to a series of conflicts, including refusing to allow students on campus in the name of Bernie Sanders, denying recognition to a pro-choice student group, and censoring a debate on its Qatar campus over the depiction of God as a woman. Recently, the university suspended an incoming faculty member for tweeting about President Joe Biden’s decision to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. FIRE criticized Georgetown for taking 122 days to investigate the tweet, which it said was protected by school policy that gives “all members of the university community…the broadest possible freedom of speech.”
Although the tone of the FIRE list was often darkly humorous, it expressed serious concern about recent incursions into student and faculty free speech.
“Since 2020, we’ve seen a rise in campus censorship unlike anything I’ve seen in my 22-year career,” FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff said in a press release. “You’d think they’d eventually run out of students and professors to censor, but they won’t be so lucky in 2022. Fingers crossed for 2023.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.