Report: Here Are The 10 Worst Colleges For Free Speech

“It’s not easy to get on these lists. The colleges you'll read about below had to work really hard."
A view of New York University sign on the campus building.
John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its tenth annual report on universities considered to be the “worst offenders” of free speech.

Many of these universities are public, taxpayer-funded schools and are bound by the First Amendment. Private universities offer some policy or mission statement related to free expression on campus, which FIRE deems an explicit promise to students and staff that their speech will not be punished.

“It’s not easy to get on these lists,” FIRE said in a statement. “The colleges you’ll read about below had to work really hard. They went out of their way to threaten student journalists, dismiss professors for protected speech, render a student homeless during a pandemic for his speech, and refuse club recognition for groups just because of their viewpoint.”

The list is written alphabetically, not in ranking order. Here are the ten worst colleges for free speech in 2021.

Collin College (Texas)

Professor Lora Burnett was threatened to be punished after criticizing then-Vice President Mike Pence online during the vice presidential debates. She tweeted that the “moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.”

The university’s president wrote to faculty members that Burnett’s tweets attracted the attention of elected officials and others and implied that Burnett could be punished for her protected — albeit vulgar — speech.

Duquesne University (Pennsylvania)

The university suspended and later terminated professor Gary Shank for saying the “n-word” during what FIRE calls a “pedagogically-relevant” discussion about why it is inappropriate to use the “n-word.”

Shank was later reinstated to his role, after a seven-month suspension without pay, mandatory training, and other measures.

Fordham University (New York)

Rising senior and Chinese-immigrant Austin Tong was suspended from the university for publishing two Instagram posts the school deemed threatening.

One post showed Tong brandishing a legally-owned firearm off-campus with a caption memorializing the Tiananmen Square massacre. The other post lamented the “nonchalant societal reaction” to the death of St. Louis Police Captain David Dorn who was killed in the Black Lives Matter riots.

The university required Tong to be escorted to and from classes and attend mandatory sensitivity training if he wished to return to campus.

Frostburg State University (Maryland)

University administrators sent an email to Residential Assistants warning them that they could lose their jobs if they bad-mouth their employer.

FIRE sent a letter to the university reminding them that unlike private employers, Frostburg State University is a public entity and is legally obligated to respect employees’ First Amendment rights.

Haskell Indian Nation University (Kansas)

University president Ronald Graham issued a directive under threat of discipline to student journalist Jared Nally, the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Indian Leader. The directive ordered Nally not to criticize members of the community or engage in routine journalistic practices such as requesting information from government agencies and recording interviews.

The university proceeded to stonewall the newspaper’s request to approve its plan of operations for the 2020-21 school year.

New York University

The Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone Health sent a gag order to faculty doctors telling them to keep quiet about the shocking impact of the coronavirus or risk punishment.

Medical faculty were required to receive advance permission from the Office of Communications and Marketing before speaking with reporters.

Northwestern University-Qatar

Northwestern University-Qatar, a branch of the esteemed Illinois school, announced the cancellation of an event on “media revolutions in the Middle East” because the band’s lead singer is openly gay.

The foundation directly linked to NU-Q put out a statement saying that the university did “not have any safety or security concerns” for the openly gay singer, the event was canceled because “it patently did not correlate” with “the context of Qatari laws as well as the country’s cultural and social customs.”

FIRE says the takeaway is that students who attend satellite campuses abroad should know that their campuses’ promises of free expression “may come with an asterisk.”

St. Johns University (Queens)

The university permanently removed adjunct professor Richard Taylor from the classroom after accusing him of violating the school’s “anti-bias” policy.

In a classroom discussion, Taylor had asked his history students to consider whether the transatlantic trade had any positive effects on biodiversity. He was accused of asking students to justify slavery.

University of Illinois-Chicago

Professor Jason Kilborn asked an exam question in his civil procedure class where, among other things, a woman accused her former employer of discrimination. The question reads verbatim, “a ‘n_____’ and ‘b___” (profane expressions for African Americans and women).”

The words were censored on the exam, but students started a petition to remove him for using “dark and vile verbiage” and “racist content.” The dean called the references “deeply offensive” and Kilborn remains under investigation.

“UIC has functionally chilled the ability of its professors to teach the tough subjects,” FIRE said in a statement.

University of Tennessee

Administrators at the University of Tennessee have tried to expel Kimberly Diei, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Pharmacy, for allegations that her personal social media activity was too “sexual.”

Diei contributed to an online conversation about the song “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and suggested lyrics for a possible remix. She also used profanity in her social media posting.

“What a young woman says about sex on social media has nothing to do with her ability to be a pharmacist,” FIRE said.

FIRE also issued a “lifetime censorship award” to Syracuse University for its years of quashing free speech. In its most recent incident, Syracuse punished a professor for writing “Wuhan Flu” on a class syllabus.

FIRE concluded its report with a note that while these eleven colleges are the worst schools for free speech, colleges and institutions across the country are routinely bad actors as well.

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