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A Call to Preserve Free Speech on Campus

It’s not exactly breaking news that free speech is in trouble on college campuses.

But new data reveals just how censorious and illiberal higher education has become — and suggest it may only be getting worse.

The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression just released its annual free-speech rankings analyzing 248 four-year colleges, and it finds a pervasive campus “culture of conformity and censorship.”

Overall, 73 of the schools have subpar free-speech climates.

The most egregious offenders are actually some of the country’s most elite universities, with Harvard University ranking as America’s worst college for free speech; fellow high-brow institutions the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, and Fordham University, along with the University of South Carolina, round out the five worst free-speech offenders.

Deplatforming attempts at these bottom-five schools had an astounding 81% success rate.

(So much for that whole “Cancel culture isn’t real” narrative, huh?)

“Students should know that a college degree at certain schools may come at the expense of their free speech rights,” FIRE’s Sean Stevens said.

At least some are aware of this ugly reality.

FIRE’s analysis found a majority of students would feel uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a political topic or expressing their views on a controversial subject during a class discussion.

But the students aren’t passive victims in this suppression of their free-speech rights — many are willing participants.

At least, that’s the unavoidable implication of their own attitudes captured in the survey.

Up to 72% of students don’t think controversial conservative speakers should be allowed on campus, depending on the topic, with up to 43% feeling similarly about a liberal speaker addressing controversial subjects.

And there are signs undergraduates’ attitudes toward free speech are getting worse.

An alarming 63% of students said it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent a speech, up from 62% last year.

And 45% think it’s OK to block others from attending a controversial campus speech, up from 37% last year.

Most disturbing, 27% of students think it’s acceptable to use violence to block a campus speech, up from 20% last year.

Suffice to say: The kids are not alright.

Let me spell out why this is so important.

For one, real learning can’t occur in these kinds of repressive academic environments.

One-sided conversations in which many participants are too afraid to say what they really think aren’t going to leave students with the critical-thinking skills and true open-mindedness they need to compete and thrive in a diverse country’s evolving economy.

But more important, these repressive attitudes aren’t just confined to academia.

Progressives, and some conservatives, waved away the excesses and extremism on college campuses for years, arguing it’s just happening in some progressive college towns and they’ll all “grow out of it” when they head into the real world.

They were wrong.

What we’ve witnessed instead over the last decade is the subtle but toxic creep of illiberal campus attitudes into graduates’ next walks of life, be it in corporate America, politics or even our public schools.

That’s how we find ourselves in more and more unpleasant situations: Young staffers at companies like Spotify revolt and try to silence stars like Joe Rogan, progressive members of Congress openly call ideas they disagree with “policy violence,” and teachers punish students for having a Gadsden flag patch on their backpack.

So the fight to keep America’s culture of free speech alive — and it’s on life support — is doomed unless we can reclaim our country’s college campuses.

How can we do that?

Well, for public universities, we can pressure our state governments to tie their funding to the adoption of more pro-free-speech policies.

And we can support the work nonprofits like FIRE do to challenge unconstitutional campus-censorship policies in court.

Private colleges, on the other hand, are legally allowed to institute repressive policies.

But we don’t have to support them in their illiberal mission.

American families can and should vote with their wallets, using FIRE’s rankings to evaluate prospective schools and not sending students — or their tuition checks — to schools with suppressive policies or campus environments.

When enough money talks, university administrators will start to listen.

This reckoning is long overdue because as a country, we’re facing a test.

And it’s one that for the sake of future generations, we can’t afford to fail.

Brad Polumbo is an independent journalist and co-founder of BASEDPolitics.

Twitter: @Brad_Polumbo

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