US colleges ‘improving’ on free speech despite Trump rhetoric

Watchdog report comes as president seeks to make political issue of campus intolerance

September 30, 2020
Crowd of protesters hold signs and rally tuition increases in front of Sproul Hall on UC Berkeley November 18 2009
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US universities are steadily improving on measures of free speech protection, even as the Trump administration tries to portray its supporters as victims of campus intolerance, an annual survey has found.

Only 24 per cent of the 471 institutions analysed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education earned the group’s lowest ranking on measures of free speech policies, censorship and due process violations.

That’s a drop from 28 per cent last year, and from 74 per cent in 2009, marking the 12th straight year of declines, according to the watchdog organisation, known as Fire.

While Fire advertises itself as non-partisan, its analysis is funded by the libertarian Charles Koch Instituteemphasises an atmosphere of liberal ideological dominance at US colleges, and comes as the Trump administration has railed on the idea that campuses are bastions of left-leaning intolerance.

In a statement accompanying its report, Fire highlighted such fears rather than note the progress over time that its own data found.

“Leaders on every college campus should look at this,” the executive director of Fire, Robert Shibley, said of the report and its focus on making classifications of US universities, “and know they have a lot of work to do.”

Fire’s report included a nationwide survey of college students. From that, it pointed out that 60 per cent of US college students have felt at some point that they could not express an opinion on a topic because of how students, professors or administrations would respond.

That view was held by 73 per cent of students who strongly identified as Republican, and by 52 per cent of those who strongly identified as Democrat, the survey found.

More than 40 per cent of all students, and 66 per cent of black students, said they found it difficult to have an open and honest conversation about race on campus, Fire found.

The survey was based on online responses collected in April and May from nearly 20,000 students enrolled at 55 four-year colleges.

Some outside experts have been challenging the notion that students, faculty or others on US college campuses are not adequately protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of the right to free speech.

The notion of a “free speech crisis on college campuses” is largely a political contrivance, said Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor of higher education at Davidson College.

“A lot of this free speech concern was started as hot air, and has now taken on a role that people actually believe in,” he said.

Students may not always behave in a civil manner, Dr Marsicano acknowledged, but “colleges and universities by and large do not punish their students for speaking their mind, and in fact most want them to”.

At one of the lowest-ranked institutions on Fire’s list, the University of Texas at Austin, an outspoken Trump administration supporter said he and others have felt persecuted by UT’s Office for Inclusion and Equity, which investigates complaints of civil rights law violations.

That office “is aggressive about soliciting bias incident reports and things of this kind”, said Daniel Bonevac, a professor of philosophy. In many instances, Professor Bonevac said, the alleged violations amounted to publicly expressing beliefs that liberals dislike.

Professor Bonevac said, however, that he had limited details of any particular case at UT-Austin, and acknowledged “it’s possible that I know of a couple of incidents and I’m blowing that up into a pattern”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

The taped evidence in the Lindsay Shepherd case (Canadian, admittedly) should have been a wake-up call.
This new FIRE survey is from a student perspective, and not directly comparable to their long-standing studies of campus policies. However, there are many flaws in the Free Speech Rankings which I analyze at AcademeBlog, https://academeblog.org/2020/10/01/why-the-college-free-speech-rankings-are-worthless/

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