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 non-profit says have violated First Amendment principles.
The list serves as a highlight reel of 2022’s campus free speech controversies, starting with Hamline University, where an art professor sparked a dispute by showing a 14th century painting of the prophet Muhammad, which some Muslims believe is offensive. Hamline called the professor’s actions “Islamophobic,” and didn’t rehire her for the spring semester. The university also issued a statement saying that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” which it later walked back after being sued by the professor. Hamline is currently under investigation by the American Association of University Professors for its handling of the case.
As it has in the past, FIRE took aim at schools whose actions fell on both the left and right sides of the culture war. Penn State University was included after cancelling an event featuring Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and conservative comedian Alex Stein, citing safety concerns, and Emerson College was cited for suspending the on-campus branch of Turning Point USA for distributing stickers reading “China Kinda Sus” and denying its request to screen a documentary about free speech. On the other hand, Tennessee Tech earned a spot for cancelling the campus events of the Lambda Gay-Straight Alliance in response to a video of its drag show, and Texas A&M was featured for dropping its sponsorship of an annual drag show and preventing students from accessing the previous year’s profits.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts were at the center of another entry. The University of Oregon (UO) drew FIRE’s ire due to its rubric for evaluating DEI statements from prospective faculty and faculty seeking promotion or tenure. UO directed committees to downgrade DEI statements saying that it was better not to have outreach or affinity groups for underrepresented students because it would keep them separate from everybody else. FIRE described this as an “ideological litmus test” that “compelled faculty to pledge allegiance to contested ideological views.” UO ignored FIRE’s protestations and maintained the rubric.
In addition to its top 10 list, FIRE also bestowed a “Lifetime Censorship Award” on Georgetown University. Georgetown had previously appeared on the list four times since 2015 for a variety of conflicts including its refusal to let students table on behalf of Bernie Sanders on campus, its denial of recognition to a pro-choice student group, and its censorship of a debate on its Qatar campus about the depiction of God as a woman. More recently, the university suspended an incoming faculty member for a tweet about President Joe Biden’s decision to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court. FIRE criticized Georgetown for taking 122 days to investigate the tweet, which it said was protected by the school’s policy granting “all members of the university community…the broadest possible latitude to speak.”
Although the tone of FIRE’s list was often darkly humorous, it expressed serious concern about recent incursions into the free speech of students and professors.
“Since 2020, we’ve seen an upswing in campus censorship unlike anything I've encountered in my 22-year career,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff in a press release. “You’d think they'd eventually run out of students and professors to censor, but no such luck in 2022. Fingers crossed for 2023.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.