It’s no secret that free inquiry is under assault in America’s colleges and universities, as campus leaders and professional associations revel in issuing all manner of right-think declarations. Through it all, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has done invaluable work manning the ramparts of free thought. Last week, FIRE released its annual list of the ten worst colleges for free speech. This year’s edition includes the University of Tennessee, New York University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Duquesne University.
Even as many campuses across the land were shuttered by the pandemic, plenty of institutions still found creative ways to stymie inconvenient or unapproved thought. New York University, for instance, threatened to terminate any physicians on the faculty who spoke to the media about coronavirus without the prior approval of campus mandarins. The University of Illinois at Chicago investigated a scholar who, while teaching about employer-based racial discrimination, avoided the use of racial slurs by carefully redacting them on the exam. (Including the words — albeit in censored form — was “deeply offensive,” said the school’s dean.) Syracuse University earned FIRE’s “Lifetime Censorship Award” for its repeated assaults on free thought; this year, the university suspended a professor who referenced the “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” for his “racism and xenophobia.”
These incidents don’t represent one-off mistakes by overzealous officials. Rather, they reflect a broader, more troubling pattern. A 2021 FIRE study of 478 higher-education institutions found that 86 percent have policies that prohibit whole categories of constitutionally protected speech. Justifiably troubled by this state of affairs, some have proposed public policies that would link student aid to campus support for free speech. While the impulse is laudable, such measures would give public officials extraordinary power over higher education. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how that could quickly go awry.