Alumni | Freedom of Expression

Don’t Attend (or Donate to) a College that Restricts Free Expression

THE HILL   |  January 29, 2020 by Jeffrey M. McCall

High school seniors are wrapping up college admissions applications ahead of the approaching Feb. 1 deadline for most institutions. These applicants will decide where to matriculate based on many factors, including the college’s reputation, location, and even dining options. More important than the usual factors, however, prospective students and their parents should consider whether a possible college choice allows students to speak and inquire freely.

College marketing materials typically show photos of college scenery, and talk about exciting extracurricular activities. Left out of the sales pitch is whether the college is committed to supporting broad-based intellectual inquiry, both in and out of the classroom.

Prospective students should consider how well they will be educated and what their overall education might be worth if they choose to study in a pedagogical Siberia.

Having fun at weekend football games or living in lavish dorms will not compensate for trying to learn in an environment that is ideologically structured, stifles expression with speech codes, and allows only a limited range of ideas in the classroom.

Most universities are today living out the warning issued a hundred years ago by sociopolitical critic, G.K. Chesterton, when he wrote, “Freedom of speech means practically… that we must only talk about unimportant things.” Campus cultures have, indeed, reduced debate on topics such as immigration, abortion, Trumpism, climate change, and others. These challenging issues are considered to be “settled” and therefore, off limits for debate, both in and outside of the classroom.

The environment for free expression might seem like a minor issue for prospective college students and their parents — until a student wants to provide an alternative policy perspective in a political science class, or a different cultural value in a sociology class, or moral application in a philosophy class. Odds are — at most colleges — that certain perspectives on these matters will be “approved” for discussion and others won’t.

Examples abound of campuses where weak-kneed administrators are happy to stifle robust expression to avoid the outrage of ideologically driven student affairs staffers and faculty. A forum about immigration policy at the University of Pennsylvania was stopped last fall because one of the panelists was former ICE director Thomas Homan. The campus newspaper at Northwestern University was badgered into apologizing for how it reported on a campus protest, even though the accuracy of the report was not questioned. Iowa State University is being sued by the free speech advocacy group, Speech First, for rules restricting chalking of sidewalks with political messages. Morehead State University just got Speech Code of the Month “honors” from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for banning the display of “sexually suggestive pictures, cartoons or posters,” without providing clear guidance of what constitutes a violation.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni gave its annual award last fall to Jose Cabranes, a federal appeals judge, former Rutgers law professor and former general counsel for Yale. Judge Cabranes used his acceptance remarks to discuss what he called “dangerous developments in university life.” These included the growth of ideological fields of study at the expense of traditional academics. He also warned of the “rise of a pedagogy of grievance,” the limiting of classroom discussion, and the trend to condemn “unwelcome ideas as ‘hate speech.’”

Cabranes’ concern for curricular warp are evidenced in ACTA’s national study called “What Will They Learn?” The study found that traditional areas of college study, such as composition, literature, math and science are being deemphasized. Only 17 percent of colleges now require a course in American history or government and only 3 percent require a student to have a course in economics.

College administrations that pursue restrictive expression policies undercut the basic vision of higher education to pursue wide inquiry through debate and analysis. These restrictive policies ultimately make it harder for reason to prevail over power and emotional mob pressure. Such colleges are robbing an entire generation of students of the cognitive freedom to think on their own.

The harm to the nation will be felt for years to come.

This corruption of the marketplace of ideas might seem unimportant to mom and dad when touring campus with son, Johnny, and admiring the campus smoothie counter. But it will be of more concern when Johnny gets his grade lowered for expressing his opinion in class, or gets hauled before a bias disciplinary board for supporting the wrong political cause or wearing the wrong shirt.

Before sending in that tuition deposit, prospective college students and their parents should study carefully the intellectual environment in which the students will have to survive for four years. Alums should also ascertain whether their alma mater’s free speech commitments are suitable before making that annual donation.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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