Barnard and Columbia: Next Door Neighbors Are Miles Apart on Free Speech

Barnard College and Columbia University have a unique relationship. Barnard is a legally autonomous, private women’s college, but it also operates as one of four undergraduate colleges in the Columbia University system. The two New York City institutions are located next door to one another. Students of Barnard and Columbia can choose to attend classes and participate in extracurricular activities on the other school’s campus. Many professors teach classes at both schools. Yet, despite sharing many academic and institutional resources, a survey suggests one important thing Barnard and Columbia don’t share—a robust commitment to free speech.

According to the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, students experience greater freedom of speech at Columbia University than at Barnard—and it’s not close. Columbia ranked 26th out of the 159 colleges and universities included in the 2021 College Free Speech Survey. Barnard ranked 133rd.

The rankings are sponsored by RealClearEducation, in partnership with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the research firm College Pulse.

The differences between Barnard and Columbia show up in several major survey categories, but the starkest, according to Sean Stevens, a senior research fellow at FIRE, is their relative tolerance for conservative speakers.

“While the survey results themselves do not allow us to answer why students at Columbia are considerably more tolerant of controversial conservative speakers, they do suggest that something about either Columbia’s student body, the campus climate overall, and/or specific aspects of the curriculum do a better job at inculcating political tolerance for ideological outgroups,” Stevens said.

Participating students were asked whether they would support allowing speakers with various controversial viewpoints—four liberal, four conservative—to speak on campus. Almost every school included in the Free Speech Survey saw sizable majorities of their students oppose letting conservative speakers on campus. Even by that low standard, Barnard College was remarkably intolerant of would-be conservative speakers.

For example, 86 percent of Barnard students surveyed said they would oppose allowing a speaker on campus who believed abortion should be illegal. Ninety-three percent would oppose allowing a speaker who believed Black Lives Matter is a hate group. Only 22 percent would support the school allowing a speaker on campus who believed the coronavirus lockdown orders infringed civil liberties.

Perhaps more troubling is the willingness of many Barnard students to entertain the heckler’s veto or to approve the use of violence to stop unwanted speech. Fifty-eight percent of students believe it is sometimes or always acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent him from speaking on campus. Forty-three percent said they would approve the use of violence to do so.

Barnard is a women’s college and, as of 2015, also admits men who “consistently live and identify as women.” FIRE’s Stevens noted that, on average, survey results showed female undergraduates were more likely to support “disruptive protest behavior.”

Asked if they were concerned about these results, a Barnard spokesperson told RealClearEducation that the school “continues to honor our commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression for all members of our community.”

Next door at Columbia, the administration has taken some practical steps to support free speech. In 2016, for instance, the Columbia Senate adopted a resolution binding itself to the principles of the “Chicago Statement”—the University of Chicago’s 2015 statement defending free expression and open inquiry. The Senate affirmed its commitment “to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

Like Barnard, the Columbia student body is overwhelmingly liberal—just five percent of students surveyed identify as Republicans. However, according to our survey, they are relatively more tolerant of conservative speakers and less willing to use violence to prevent speech from occurring on campus.

Both schools have speech-related shortcomings at the administrative level. According to FIRE, neither school’s written code of conduct is entirely free of policies that have the real or potential effect of stifling students’ expressive freedoms. Columbia has a policy against sending “harassing messages” via email, which FIRE claims “easily encourages administrative abuse or arbitrary application.” At Barnard, the Title IX policy—which defines “discriminatory harassment” as including “negative stereotyping” and “denigrating jokes”—earned FIRE’s “Red Light” speech-code rating.

Many students report self-censoring for fear of reprisal. “By stating that discriminatory harassment includes such broad examples, students are left to assume things like ‘negative stereotyping’ or subjectively ‘denigrating jokes’ are banned across the board, and may self-censor in order to avoid punishment,” FIRE’s Director of Policy Reform, Laura Beltz, told RealClearEducation.

One Barnard student who responded to the survey said that the voices of dissenting speakers on campus are often drowned out by disruptive students. “Students often protest right-wing speakers to the point where that speaker cannot be heard in the room,” she said. “If one has an unpopular opinion, they are sure to be attacked or ‘canceled’ by other students very quickly.”

Editor’s Note:  A version of this article originally. appeared at RealClearEducation.

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