Collegiate censorship plagues higher education

Photo by Caroline Betz Student Publications

Annually, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) publishes their College Free Speech Rankings for 248 colleges and universities in the United States, based on thousands of surveyed students as well as institute policies and any related proceedings. 

In the last year, the Institute rose from No. 90 to No. 27 within this ranking, something that every single Tech student should be extremely proud to be a part of.

One of the most integral facets of higher education institutes that are truly dedicated to pushing forward to create a better world is the promotion of the free exchange of ideas. A school that truly believes in the freedom of speech should be fighting for students and faculty to be able to express their ideas freely without fear of extreme backlash from other dissenting students or angry faculty members. They should allow for speakers of all affiliations to speak freely on campus regardless of how controversial they may be. Even if a guest speaker is discussing something extremely inflammatory or controversial, such as Sister Cindy’s infamous speeches on college campuses, schools have a duty to protect their right to freedom of speech. If any school starts to decide who does and does not deserve this right based on their beliefs, they are participating in censorship that is dangerous to the future of higher education as a whole. Some of the most prestigious and highly esteemed colleges in the United States are the schools that make up the Ivy League, such as Princeton University, Barnard College and Harvard University. Collectively, every single Ivy League college ranked abysmally on this year’s ranking published by FIRE. 

With the exception of Brown University, which was given an “average” speech climate ranking (No. 69), every single Ivy League college was ranked in the bottom half of colleges. Most alarmingly, Harvard University, arguably the most famous and prestigious university in America, was ranked last for freedom of speech and received the only speech climate “abysmal” rating. Harvard’s deplorable performance when being assessed for freedom of speech, rather than academic prestige or the value of the degree once a student has graduated, raises many important questions about what the American academic community truly values and what traits of academic institutions prospective students should be considering. 

In a country with a deeply rooted history of pride in their efforts to legally protect their citizen’s freedom of speech, the most sought after academic institutions ought to be upholding these same values. 

Within institutions, such as Harvard, that place a strong emphasis on their liberal arts courses of study, areas in which the ability to discuss controversial topics and present new ideas is critical to the integrity of the field, a lack of diversity within students’ political beliefs and ideologies devalues the worth and integrity of such a degree. Some students surveyed by FIRE provided statements about why they answered the way that they did, and the responses from students at Ivy League schools provide valuable insight into the root of the freedom of speech issues that have led to the schools’ shockingly low ratings. One student in the Class of 2024 at Harvard cited that they feared repercussions from classmates and faculty if they posted opinions on social media. Another student in the Class of 2023 went as far as to say that “students love to cancel each other in the name of wokeness.” A student in Yale’s Class of 2023 said that they “didn’t express discomfort or disagreement with them for fear of being canceled.” Yet another student in the Class of 2025 at Barnard College stated that they felt the need to say that they “lost their train of thought” as opposed to expressing their true opinion in a class discussion out of fear for the way that they would be treated. These sentiments being expressed by students of extremely prestigious academic institutions should be nauseatingly worrying to anyone who finds value in the free exchange of ideas, which is critical for continuation of human progress. 

In environments where opinions that differ from the majority are unwelcome and are harshly punished, any discussion or debate quickly turns into an echo chamber where new ideas are not discussed and no productive discussion is actually occurring. These are not the institutions where innovative young minds should be flocking to unless they do not find freedom of speech to be a value they desire in an institute of higher education. In schools where discussions or debates devolve into echo chambers where dissent is punished, it is clear that community does not place a value on the freedom of speech that is an integral part of a productive and open conversation. Instead, these schools are placing values in whatever the dominant ideology is within the student body and faculty, inherently devaluing opposing opinions. By so distinctly valuing one set of ideas over another, these institutions are turning away from the vivid intellectual environment they claim to value so highly.

Instead of just looking at the national rankings of a school or the major specific rankings or the school’s recent football performance, I urge prospective students to research whether or not a school upholds the values that each student finds importance in. If a student is in search of a school that values freedom of speech, academic rigor and fighting to create a future that each student believes in, then Tech just might be the school for them.