Corey Friedman: Campus Speech Censors Fear Leonard Law Clones | Opinions
What do Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins have in common?
These elite private universities may share space on an ambitious list of applications for seniors to go to colleges, but they are also leading the way in the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, which the Non-Partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in education produced in partnership with analysis company College Pulse and news site RealClearEducation.
Princeton, which ranks first in the US News & World Report’s list of top national universities, is the ding 135th of 154 schools on the free speech list.
Only 27% of students said they would feel very comfortable (10%) or somewhat comfortable (17%) to publicly disagree with a professor on a controversial topic.
FIRE gives schools a green, yellow or red rating for their rules governing student expression. Princeton has been red lighted for maintaining at least one policy that “both clearly and significantly restricts freedom of speech.”
Despite all its Ivy League cachet, Harvard does not do much better. It is ranked 130th out of 154 schools and has a red light voice code rating. A meager 28% of students feel at least comfortable enough to disagree with professors on contentious issues.
Organizers surveyed more than 37,000 students, conducting the largest poll of free speech on campus ever to establish the rankings.
Despite some bright spots, the results show that U.S. colleges and universities continue to struggle when it comes to upholding the right to ask tough questions, challenge dominant sentiments, and express opposing views.
Public colleges, which are government agencies bound to uphold First Amendment rights, do not rank significantly higher than their private counterparts operating without constitutional constraints. The best school for free speech (Claremont McKenna College) and the worst (DePauw University) are both private.
Cumulatively, 66% of students said that it is rarely, sometimes or often acceptable to criticize speakers with whom they disagree, and 23% tolerated the use of violence to stifle offensive speech. Even if professors and deans don’t instill these repressive attitudes, they clearly aren’t doing enough to curb them.
What will it take to reverse the trend? Obtaining voluntary institutional commitments such as the excellent Chicago declaration could help. Since the University of Chicago (No. 2 in the free speech rankings) codified its support for free inquiry in January 2015, some 83 other campuses have adopted or endorsed the policy statement.
For politics with bite, states can follow in California’s footsteps. Its Leonard Act, passed in 1992, is the only law in the land that extends First Amendment protections to students enrolled in private high schools, colleges and universities. A 2006 update expanded the law to cover public institutions.
Senator Bill Leonard’s original idea, R-San Bernardino, allows students to express themselves freely, whether they attend a public University of California campus or a private school such as Stanford, Pepperdine, or Claremont McKenna. Administrators who punish students for protected speech can be prosecuted in state courts.
Guest lectures from conservative firebrands such as Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulous are still controversial in the left-wing Golden State, but campus leaders can use the Leonard Law to explain why they can’t please the aggrieved. The administrators are isolated from the mobs of indignation. Their hands are tied; they just follow the law.
The prospect of a nationwide Leonard law is as enticing as it is remote. Congress could give private colleges a choice: assert the right to free speech or forgo all federal funds, including student aid and student loans paid directly to schools on behalf of students. Why should taxpayers subsidize censorship?
State houses provide the most fertile soil for planting the seeds of Leonard’s Law. In 2021 alone, lawmakers introduced 40 free speech bills on campuses in 22 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The efforts fall short of California’s gold standard, but the sheer numbers show that state governments are true laboratories of democracy.
The Constitution establishes a floor for individual rights rather than a ceiling. While no law, rule, or policy can weaken the First Amendment, there are many opportunities to strengthen it.
Students choose private colleges for their sport, academic rigor, reputation, religious affiliation, and a hundred other reasons, but administrative authoritarianism is never one of them.
A Leonardo law would allow them to attend the college of their choice without sacrificing the right to speak.
– Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @ coreywrite. Click here to read the previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.