This past year will be remembered as the year that freedom of speech (or the lack thereof) on U.S. campuses became international news.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
Students in front of the mail library on the campus of Northwester University in Chicago, Ill., Aug 1,1947. (AP Photo/Edward Kitch)
Students in front of the mail library on the campus of Northwester University in Chicago, Ill., Aug 1,1947. (AP Photo/Edward Kitch)

This past year will be remembered as the year that freedom of speech (or the lack thereof) on U.S. campuses became international news. Even President Barack Obama felt compelled to comment on the issue (three separate times). Although those of us who have worked for years on the frontlines defending freedom of speech on campus think the media was a little late to the story, we can all agree that last year was an especially contentious one.

While some students filed lawsuits to fight campus "free speech zones," others demanded new, restrictive campus speech codes. Some campuses renewed their commitments to freedom of speech, while others backpedaled. Perhaps the most striking trend of the last year was the number of professors, even tenured professors, who found their livelihoods under threat for what they said either on or off campus.

With an epic year behind us, we are proud to present the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's (FIRE's) list of the worst schools for free speech in 2016. This is our fifth annual list, and it covers the time that has passed since we published our fourth list during this time last year.

One school that people may have expected to see on the list that did not make it is Yale University. As you may know, FIRE strongly opposed last year's effort by Yale students to get two professors, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, fired from their posts at the university. The controversy arose after Erika Christakis sent an email defending students' autonomy and questioning if it is the proper role of colleges to tell students what Halloween costumes they should wear.

While no charges were brought against either of the Christakises, both professors announced that they will not teach in the spring. Nicholas cancelled his spring 2016 class to go on sabbatical, and Erika resigned from teaching. Of course, this is a very bad outcome for Yale. But because the university did publicly defend the professors' free speech and academic freedom rights, we decided that Yale did not edge out the 10 schools who made the list this year. FIRE will, however, keep a close eye on Yale to see if it lives up to its glowing promises of freedom of speech.

Another university, or, in this case, university system, that did not quite make this year's list, but easily could have, is the University of California (UC) system. For several years now, the board of regents of the UC system has proposed, with some support from students, an expansion of the definition of anti-Semitism that would present serious First Amendment concerns and chill constitutionally protected speech, including criticism of Israel's government. We at FIRE have strongly opposed this move from the start, but given that the proposed language has not yet been adopted, the UC system did not make the list this year. However, if the UC system adopts the proposed definition, I can all but guarantee you that it will make this list next year -- and likely end up on the losing end of a First Amendment lawsuit.

This year's list contains cases from all over the spectrum -- from large public colleges, to three private Catholic schools, and more. If you believe we missed a college, or want to nominate a college for next year's list, please let us know in the comments. Most of all, if you want to challenge your own school's speech codes, please get in touch with us.

Mount St. Mary's University

Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland did everything it could this month to ensure it would find itself on this "worst of the worst" list in 2016. On February 8, the liberal arts university took the extraordinary step of firing Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured professor, and Ed Egan, the student newspaper's faculty advisor, in the midst of a mushrooming scandal surrounding first-year university President Simon P. Newman's plan to oust low-performing freshmen.

The plan became national news in January after the student newspaper reported that Newman sought to use a student survey as a basis to identify students to dismiss, which would boost retention rates, and that he told a concerned faculty member, "This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can't. You just have to drown the bunnies ... put a Glock to their heads." The professors were notified of their firings in letters that stated they were "persona non grata" at the university and were no longer welcome on campus or at any university activity, and that failure to comply with the letter would result in "legal proceedings."

Newman also demanded and received the resignation of Provost David B. Rehm, who was previously critical of Newman's retention plan.

While Mount St. Mary's is a private, Catholic institution, it makes promises of free speech and academic freedom to its community that it is morally and legally obligated to uphold -- promises it broke in firing the faculty members.

The firings unleashed a storm of criticism, and on February 12, Newman announced at a faculty meeting that Egan and Naberhaus had been reinstated. Although Newman's reversal is a welcome development, Mount St. Mary's actions have caused lasting damage to the community's confidence in the administration. Naberhaus, in fact, has already stated that he refuses to return. If disagreeing with the administration on an important issue within the university community is a fireable offense, no form of dissent is safe at the Mount.

Northwestern University

Northwestern University earns its place on this year's list for its heavy-handed and chilling treatment of not one but two prominent faculty members. Northwestern was thrust into the national spotlight last spring, after professor Laura Kipnis found herself the subject of a Title IX investigation for an essay she wrote that was, ironically, critical of the over-enforcement of Title IX. In the essay, she criticized the "sexual panic" that has resulted from Title IX's unchecked expansion, using a widely reported-upon case at her own university as an example. During her Title IX investigation -- which dragged on for more than 70 days -- Kipnis was denied even the most basic information necessary to defend herself. She was not allowed, for example, to review any evidence submitted against her, a due process deficiency that is unfortunately common during campus investigations. Northwestern cleared Kipnis only after she published an explosive and damning account of her treatment in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

At the same time that Kipnis was undergoing her Title IX ordeal, administrators at Northwestern's medical school were censoring a faculty-produced bioethics journal, fearing that one article's discussion of oral sex would be detrimental to the medical school's "brand." Northwestern then announced the creation of an oversight committee to review the journal's content prior to publication. This new prior review requirement so incensed professor and author Alice Dreger, who edited the journal issue featuring the controversial article, that she resigned her faculty position at Northwestern as a result.

Louisiana State University

Teresa Buchanan served Louisiana State University (LSU) for nearly 20 years as a tenured professor who inspired her students, won millions of dollars in grant money for the university, and developed a top-notch early childhood education teacher training curriculum. However, in June 2015, only a few months before she was eligible to retire, LSU fired her for her alleged occasional use of profanity. LSU ignored that she used this as a pedagogical technique to prepare her adult students to be effective teachers. The university claimed Buchanan's teaching methods violated its policy prohibiting "sexual harassment" of students, although not a single student had ever accused her of sexual harassment.

LSU's policy defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical behavior of a sexual nature," mirroring the language of the sexual harassment definition propagated by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in 2013 as "a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country." A faculty panel unanimously opposed firing Buchanan, but without explanation, LSU's top administrators overruled the panel and fired her, prompting censure by the American Association of University Professors and the LSU faculty senate.

Left with no other choice, Buchanan sued LSU in federal court on January 20, 2016, for violating her First Amendment and due process rights. FIRE has been predicting since the day the "blueprint" definition of sexual harassment was released that it would be used to stifle speech and limit academic freedom. Although we regret being proven right, we are proud to sponsor Buchanan's lawsuit as part of our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project and look forward to the restoration of unfettered dialogue between professors and students at LSU.

University of California, San Diego

In November 2015, the student government at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) cut all student media funding in an effort to censor The Koala, an unapologetically satirical student newspaper that has long been known for its provocative content. After The Koala published an article in 2015 mocking the concept of "safe spaces" on campus, the UCSD administration released a statement denouncing the newspaper and the "offensive and hurtful language it chooses to publish." Following the administration's lead, the UCSD Associated Students Council, which funded The Koala and many other student organizations through mandatory student activity fees, decided to strip funding from all student print media organizations in an attempt to punish the newspaper, seeming to acknowledge that it could not defund just The Koala because of its offensive content and still purport to comply with the First Amendment.

If this sounds familiar, it should. In 2010, in response to another controversial move by The Koala, the council president froze all student media funding until the council could develop policies to prevent student funds from going to groups supporting hateful speech. FIRE and others spoke out, noting that the First Amendment prohibits the council from distributing student activity fees in a manner that discriminates against groups based on the viewpoints they express. And the council certainly cannot punish an entire category of student organizations in order to target the speech of one unpopular paper. After weeks of controversy, the council finally voted to restore student-media funding.

FIRE, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the Student Press Law Center have all written to the council and the university to point out that defunding all student media in order to censor a single controversial publication is just as unconstitutional today as it was in 2010. But with New Year's Day come and gone and the funding yet to be restored, UCSD joins our list of the worst free speech offenders of the past year.

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota fired popular classics adjunct professor Dave Hillman after he translated Seneca's Medea and then worked with the drama department to put on an authentic production of the play. The administration apparently did not approve of Hillman's decision to have cast members point fascina -- phallus shaped objects -- at audience members to replicate the ancient practice of "confronting viewers with their lavish and corrupt lifestyles," as Hillman explained.

The official justification for firing Hillman is not clear. The university says he was terminated for sexual harassment, but it never explained to him the details of his alleged misdeeds, such as the name of the target of the harassment and when it happened. Saint Mary's also fired Hillman from his job as a janitor at the university, leaving him unable to afford asthma medication for his daughter.

On February 3, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote to Saint Mary's urging the university to explain Hillman's charges and provide him with a fair hearing. The AAUP also asked Saint Mary's to revise its sexual harassment policies to "comport with Association-supported standards."

Like Mount St. Mary's in Maryland, Saint Mary's of Minnesota is a Catholic university, but it promises freedom of expression to its faculty and students. Saint Mary's therefore violated its contractual and moral duty to uphold its pledges when it fired Hillman without due process, thus removing a dedicated professor whose only sin appears to be doing his job too well.

University of Oklahoma

Last March, University of Oklahoma (OU) President David Boren unilaterally expelled two members of the university's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity for their "leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant," as shown in a video posted online. However, as First Amendment experts Eugene Volokh and Erwin Chemerinsky pointed out at the time, OU is a public university and cannot punish speech that does not fall into one of the few and narrowly defined categories of speech not protected by the First Amendment, like true threats or incitement to imminent lawless action. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that offensive speech, even racist speech, is protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the expulsion of the two OU students without notice of the charges against them or an opportunity to contest those charges was one of the most brazen violations of free speech and due process rights to occur on campus in 2015.

What's worse, after the expulsions, numerous colleges across the country seized on OU's unconstitutional actions as a signal that they have an "all clear" to toss freedom of speech and basic fairness out of the window. But public colleges do so at their own peril. If a student decides to stand up to their college, the courts are quite clear on whose side they will rule.

Marquette University

Marquette University makes this year's list for the same reason it made last year's list: its ongoing campaign to strip the tenure of longtime professor John McAdams based on the writings on his personal blog. McAdams criticized a graduate student instructor for suppressing a student's opinions against same-sex marriage during a class discussion. After the instructor received criticism from readers of McAdams' blog, Marquette suspended McAdams without due process and without a hint of regard for his free speech or academic freedom rights.

But that was only the beginning. In public statements the university repeatedly insinuated, without any evidence, that McAdams had violated Marquette's harassment policy, labeled him a threat to safety, and effectively held him directly responsible for the comments and actions of his readers -- a position wildly opposed to basic free speech principles.

Marquette announced it was seeking his termination last January, and McAdams is now in his third semester of being banned from teaching and being on campus as he appeals his case. Unless it wants to take up permanent residence in this feature, Marquette must resolve McAdams' case and return him to the classroom without further delay.

Colorado College

As protests over racial issues publicly roiled campuses across the country in late 2015, college administrators were eager to avoid the perception that they were indifferent to racial tensions. Sometimes, this impulse resulted in colleges disciplining students perceived to be engaging in racially charged speech. At Colorado College, a student responded anonymously to a post on the social media application Yik Yak that read "#blackwomenmatter" with the joke "They matter, they're just not hot." After administrators learned that student Thaddeus Pryor may have been responsible for the joke, they summoned him to a meeting at which he admitted to writing it. Colorado College responded by imposing a 21-month suspension, during which Pryor was forbidden from taking courses for academic credit at any other institution. Following Pryor's appeal and a letter from FIRE reminding Colorado College that its actions violated the freedom of expression that the college promises to its students, Pryor's suspension was reduced to six months. But any suspension for clearly protected speech is unacceptable at an institution that claims to value free speech, and Colorado College's repeated failure to live up to these ideals warrants its inclusion on this year's list of worst offenders.

University of Tulsa

While many colleges on this list earned their spot for punishing students for what they said, the University of Tulsa earned its place because it punished a student for what someone else said.

In September 2014, Tulsa student George "Trey" Barnett was notified by Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka that eight harsh interim measures, including his removal from classes and a theater production, had been imposed on him because his then-fiancé authored Facebook posts that criticized a Tulsa professor and other members of the Tulsa community. A month later, Tanaka found Barnett guilty of harassment and of retaliation for sharing information about the complaint with his fiancé, who provided Tanaka with a sworn affidavit acknowledging that he, not Barnett, was the author of the Facebook posts. Barnett's punishment was severe -- he was suspended until at least January 2016 and barred from receiving a degree in his major when he returned to classes. Barnett appealed the decision, and his appeal was summarily denied in January 2015.

However, Tulsa didn't earn a spot on this year's list just for its attack on one student's fundamental rights; it also targeted Tulsa's student newspaper, The Collegian, for covering Barnett's suspension.

Last month, Barnett announced that he was fighting back. On January 13, he filed a lawsuit, alleging that Tulsa failed to provide him with "any meaningful due process" in finding him guilty of harassment and retaliation. Barnett's lawsuit also claims that Tulsa subjected him to "substantial mental anguish" and violated its free speech promises. We're hoping this lawsuit will ensure that Tulsa doesn't end up on our "worst" list next year.

Wesleyan University

It's been a rough year for the student press, and at few institutions has that been more evident than at Wesleyan University. Wesleyan was plunged into controversy last fall after its main student newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, published a student column critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Students mobilized in opposition to the column's publication, circulating a petition calling for Wesleyan's student government to defund the Argus unless specific demands were met. Among the petitioners' plans to get its demands met was a movement to support "recycling" the Argus -- another way of saying they would round up and destroy copies of the newspaper if their demands went unmet. Indeed, the Argus reported that several hundred copies of the paper were stolen in the midst of the controversy.

Wesleyan's student government then took up the issue, voting last fall to approve a dangerous resolution that could turn free speech at Wesleyan on its head. Under the new resolution, which may take effect this fall, the Argus could see $17,000 in funding -- more than half its budget -- revoked and reallocated to other student publications. Worse, the proposal would allocate funding in significant part based on a popular vote of the whole student body, an open invitation to viewpoint discrimination if ever there was one. If Wesleyan doesn't wise up to the dangerous flaws in the new funding scheme, an already chilled atmosphere for free speech will turn truly frosty.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community