ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: The sad state of free speech on college campuses

Earlier this year, an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a report about the state of free speech on college campuses.

It wasn’t encouraging, but one Texas university provided a bright spot.

In general, America’s college students aren’t confident that their right to free speech is protected. According to the report, more than eight in 10 students censor themselves on campus. Two-thirds say shouting down a speaker is acceptable, and almost one in four say it’s acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech. Less than a third of students believe their college administration makes policies about free speech “very clear” or “extremely clear” to students.

FIRE presents itself as a nonpartisan promoter of free speech. Earlier this year, it released its list of the 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech, scorching Syracuse University for expelling a professor for a reference to COVID that referred to the Chinese city of Wuhan and the University of Tennessee for expelling a student for “sex positive” social media posts.

Traditionally, college campuses have been the place where young people expand their horizons and get exposed to new ideas. But it’s no secret that such open-mindedness has been replaced on many campuses in recent years by a progressive ”New Puritanism,” to borrow a phrase from The Atlantic.

As such, the highest ranking school in the FIRE report, Claremont McKenna College in California, only scored a 72.27 out of 100. Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, we aren’t surprised, didn’t score well.

Out of 481 colleges and universities, Texas A&M University was the highest-ranking Texas school, ranking 25th with a score of 63.67. It was also the only Texas school to receive a “green light,” denoting free speech protections in written university policies. Southern Methodist University was the next highest in Texas, ranking 88th with a score of 59.05.

After scoring well in FIRE’s 2019 report, A&M president Michael Young said, “A free exchange of ideas is not only a cornerstone of our democracy, it is the surest path to truth, discovery and scholarly advancement.”

We agree with Young. Sadly, much speech these days is intended to inflame and divide, and it is so noxious that it tests tolerance. But as a nation, we must always recognize the importance of protections on speech. At the same time, we should prepare our students to enter a world where they are unafraid to consider and discuss ideas from many perspectives.

That is simply not the case on too many college campuses, where an orthodoxy of thought, usually but not exclusively progressive, has led students to silence themselves, each other and their professors and administrators.

If FIRE’s report does good, it will loosen the grip of fear preventing students from saying or writing what they think. That’s one of the best ways, after all, to refine those thoughts.