As Colleges Moved Online to Combat the Pandemic, a Plague of Self-Censorship Raged On

If a tree falls in the wilderness and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? That could be the start of an interesting philosophical conversation. On the other hand, if there’s an interesting philosophical conversation to be had—does it stand much of a chance of actually happening in today’s college classroom? As the newly released 2021 College Free Speech Rankings reveal, the answer depends on which college you’re attending.

The past year in higher education has been defined by COVID-19. The pandemic has altered students’ lives and forced many to adapt to online learning. But the quality of the education students receive is being impacted by a different sort of contagion—an epidemic of fearful silence.

More than 80 percent of American college students in our latest survey say that they self-censor in the classroom, on campus, and online.

The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings represent the largest survey of free speech on campus ever conducted. This year we surveyed more than 37,000 students at more than 150 U.S. colleges and universities. RealClearEducation produced the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings in collaboration with the research firm College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The rankings are presented via an easy-to-use, interactive website, where parents and students can compare schools side by side and see how their favorites stack up in the area of free speech.

This year, Claremont McKenna College—a small liberal arts college in Southern California—received the No. 1 ranking. Rounding out the top five are the University of Chicago, the University of New Hampshire, Emory University, and Florida State University.

It’s worth noting that 17 of the top 25 are public colleges or universities. On the flip side, 20 of the bottom 25 are private institutions. So, if you’re looking for a better environment for free speech, your local State U might be the best place to start your search.

For the second year in a row, DePauw University received the lowest ranking in our survey. Rounding out the bottom five are Marquette University, Louisiana State University, Boston College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In our survey, we asked students to rate: 1) their openness to having conversations about difficult topics like abortion or affirmative action, 2) their tolerance for liberal and conservative speakers on campus, 3) how much support the leaders of their colleges showed for free speech, 4) their comfort expressing themselves or disagreeing with others on campus, 5) their willingness to engage in disruptive conduct to stop others from speaking. We used these survey responses, along with an analysis of the schools’ written policies on free speech, to give each school a numerical score. That score determines the school’s ranking.

This year we learned that, if speech on campus was already a problem, the nationwide shift to online learning during the pandemic did not help matters. A plurality of students (42 percent) said that it was more difficult to exchange ideas online than in person. Only 40 percent said they were comfortable disagreeing with a professor publicly—that’s down five percentage points from last year.

Many online classes are recorded, and it’s not surprising if students are even warier of expressing unpopular opinions since they know every syllable is being preserved. In recent years, many colleges have formed “bias response teams” that encourage students to file official complaints about the bias they perceive in professors or other students. Add constant video monitoring to the mix, and if George Orwell had dreamed up a dystopian college, he might have come up with a similar system for language policing. The chilling effect on campus speech should come as a surprise to no one.

America’s free speech problem is not limited to higher education. Our culture has been swept up in a frenzy of censorship and polarization, powered in part by the growing influence of social media in our lives over the past 15 years. Many of the ideas that fuel today’s negative behavior online actually originated in the university decades before.

“Social media took obscure ideas from campus and perfected them as weapons to enforce ideological conformity,” says Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, which frequently represents students and faculty in disputes over free speech and academic freedom. “Social media is at the heart of a huge percentage of FIRE cases, with professors getting in trouble for what they tweet so often that I wonder why any of them continue to bother. Whereas once it seemed like social media would support and even reward idiosyncrasies and individuality, it has been transformed into what I call a giant conformity engine.”

A recent Yale study shows how social media platforms amplify expressions of moral outrage. People quickly learn that such language gets rewarded with more “likes” or retweets. Meanwhile, a group of New York University scholars has written about the tendency of social media to generate what they call “affective polarization,” or “the degree to which political opponents regard their foes as abhorrent and irredeemable. This kind of severe partisan hatred precludes political compromise, as foes come to see the other side as an existential threat to democracy.”

In a society rife with polarization and the constant policing and weaponization of speech, the university’s task of protecting and encouraging open inquiry, healthy debate, and free expression is admittedly a tough one. But our rankings prove that students take notice when their schools proactively protect and promote free speech. The commitment of a university administration to this end, or lack thereof, makes a real difference.

If you read their websites, colorful brochures, and official governing policies, you’ll find pretty much every college or university claims to foster an environment of free expression. The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings reveal which colleges and universities are doing the best (and worst) job of living up to that promise.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared at Real Clear Education.

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