At the beginning of this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released its annual College Free Speech Rankings. Tech rose significantly in the rankings, jumping from 90th place in last year’s report to 27th place. FIRE develops its report based on a survey of 55,102 college students attending 254 accredited colleges.
According to FIRE’s website, the College Free Speech Rankings are based on a composite score of 13 questions, six of which survey student perceptions of their campus environment. The other seven assess faculty and staff responses to the expression of ideas on campus. Most questions asked students if they felt comfortable expressing a controversial political opinion to a variety of audiences through various media. Higher scores indicate a better campus climate for free speech and expression.
Dr. Luoluo Hong is the Vice President for Student Engagement & Well-Being (SEWB), and her department works alongside others to foster a healthy free speech climate on campus for students and faculty.
“Under President Cabrera’s leadership, all members of Georgia Tech’s administration are deeply committed to protecting and promoting free speech across campus. After the results came out last year, Georgia Tech reviewed its policies and procedures and made substantive changes to better protect the freedom of expression rights of students, faculty, staff and guests at Georgia Tech. This is a major reason for the leap forward in our ranking,” says Hong.
The organization deemed the Institute’s speech climate “slightly above average” and assigned it a speech code of “green,” meaning that it is generally safe for students to express their ideas on campus. Hong attributes this in part to the Institute’s commitment to establishing a tolerant campus environment, which is present in a new SEWB division.
“Student Engagement & Well-Being is really making a concerted effort, along with other cabinet areas and the colleges, to promote a sense of belonging for all students, regardless of their identities, backgrounds or viewpoints. Students who have a sense of being welcomed and included, as well as perceive that they truly matter, are more likely to be actively engaged both in and out of the classroom and as a result experience greater holistic success. The establishment of a new division in August, known as Arts, Belonging & Community, is in part an effort to better emphasize and highlight this effort. This focus also permeates a large number of our departments and offices across SEWB,” Hong says.
Tech is able to maintain this high standard due to the rights to free speech outlined by the Student Handbook and the University System of Georgia. However, Dr. Hong says that real changes come from enforcing these rights.
“Georgia Tech has advanced as one of its strategic values, ‘we safeguard freedom of inquiry and expression.’ This is the cornerstone of a high-quality education that prepares our graduates to work and lead into the future. We cannot truly live our values if we do not hold members of the community accountable when we don’t live up to this guiding principle. When we are aware of potential free speech violations, we can also use those as an opportunity to educate and help people develop a better understanding of both their rights and their responsibilities where free speech is concerned,” Hong says.
Although their review of the Institute was generally positive, Tech’s ranking page featured some testimonials from students who felt uncomfortable expressing their opinions on campus.
“There are few instances of abortion politics being discussed on campus,” says one anonymous student. “This is a very emotionally-charged issue and it is difficult to navigate in an environment where some people may take offense to [having] a particular stance.”
Furthermore, Tech’s advancements of free speech protections have led them to navigate the discussion of hate speech versus discrimination.
“Georgia Tech administrators understand that combating discrimination and promoting free speech are not mutually exclusive. Based on our campus policy, discrimination is defined as ‘decision-making based on protected categories of race, ethnicity, ancestry, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, genetics, veteran status or any other category protected by law.’ GT further defines discriminatory harassment as, ‘unwelcome verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct directed against any person or group, based upon [the categories mentioned] that is so severe, pervasive or persistent as to unreasonably interfere with or limit an individual’s employment or educational opportunities,’” Hong says.
USG policy follows the U.S. Constitution, in that there it does not make an exception for hate speech under students’ first amendment protections. In fact, the policy designates the outdoor areas of campus as “public forums for the campus community.” Therefore, Tech has a limited scope in terms of what speech they can regulate on campus.
“As part of our commitment to fostering a Yellow Jacket community where all feel a sense of belonging, Georgia Tech strives to combat discrimination through prevention and intervention efforts. In my experience in responding to complaints of alleged discrimination, most speech that is reported ends up being protected speech and does not rise to the level of constituting unlawful discrimination or harassment. However, whenever we believe that reported behavior has potentially violated laws or policies, we will investigate and follow up, as well as provide support to those who have been negatively impacted or harmed,” Hong says.
Instead of censorship, Hong says that Tech strives to develop a community where students feel a sense of belonging, and she concluded her statement by encouraging students to engage in this process.
“If we wish to live in a community defined by caring and compassion, we can’t just focus on our individual rights to free speech. We also need honest, courageous conversations about the responsibility we each must uphold to consider the impact and consequences of our speech. When speech is hurtful or harmful, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Just because I have the right to say this, should I be saying this? Is this how I want to show up with others, or how I want to be a part of the GT community,’” Hong says.
Students can learn more about the Institute’s free speech policies and any recent procedural changes that have been made and could impact them at students.gatech.edu/freedom_of_expression.