On Free Speech, Texas A&M Beats University of Texas – and It Isn’t Even Close

On Free Speech, Texas A&M Beats University of Texas – and It Isn’t Even Close
Stephen Spillman/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Texas is home to a distinctive popular and political culture. On the hot-button issue of free speech on college campuses, does the Lone Star State buck the worrying trends of self-censorship and intolerance emerging in other states, especially on college campuses?

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This question can be answered empirically thanks to a groundbreaking collaborative effort between RealClearEducation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and College Pulse. The 2020 College Free Speech Rankings represent those organizations’ attempt to quantify the state of free speech on campus, relying primarily on survey data collected from nearly 20,000 undergraduates at 55 major American colleges and universities. Students were asked questions that revealed both their commitment to free speech and their perception of their peers’ and administrators’ support for the same.

Once collected and coded, student responses were used to calculate an overall score for each school, grading their institutional commitment to free speech. The overall score can be disaggregated into five component scores: tolerance, openness, administrative support for free speech, self-expression, and the existence of speech codes on campus as detected by FIRE.

Two Texas institutions – the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University – were included in the rankings. The former struggled mightily, while the latter performed better than all but two institutions.

The University of Texas at Austin’s overall score (44.5) ranked 54th of the 55 colleges and universities surveyed. Students at UT Austin consistently reported feeling uncomfortable engaging in controversial discussions on campus, with progressive and conservative students both expressing unease with the prevailing campus climate. One student, a self-described “moderate liberal,” wrote that “it’s often hard to discuss issues with people who are stuck in their beliefs,” whether those beliefs are progressive or conservative. Still, the student noted, it is “always the extreme liberals who [get] upset when I say something even slightly controversial.” Another UT Austin undergraduate noted difficulty in “publicly expressing an opinion on any topic because of how polarizing the political climate is right now.”

If their peers’ survey responses are to be believed, the students’ fear of reprisal is not unfounded. Nearly 70 percent of UT Austin students said that it might be acceptable to shout down a controversial speaker, while 21 percent said that it might be acceptable to use violent protest to prevent a speech from occurring on campus – troublingly large figures for an institution that professes a commitment to free and open inquiry.

UT Austin’s overall score was further damaged by the university’s having received a “red light” grade from FIRE, indicating the presence of “speech codes,” or substantial impediments to students’ exercise of their First Amendment rights written into the university’s codes of conduct. Some students have petitioned the school to adopt the Chicago Statement, the University of Chicago’s now-famous declaration in favor of open academic inquiry and a robust commitment to protecting student speech. A resolution approved by the student government at UT Austin highlights the areas of concern within the current student codes of conduct that should be changed:

Prohibitions in the Information Security Office’s Acceptable Use Policy such as “Do not send rude or harassing correspondence” or University Catalog Appendix D’s prohibition on “the telling of jokes or anecdotes of a sexual nature in the workplace, office, or classroom, even if such conduct is not objected to by those present” would be considered part of free speech and would no longer be barred. This is consistent with the idea that it is not the proper role of the university to shield people from things they may find disagreeable or offensive, and further, are completely non-justiciable in any fair or just way.

The University did not respond to requests for comment.

By contrast, Texas A&M University performed quite well in the College Free Speech Rankings, with its overall score (56.2) placing it third among the 55 institutions included in the survey.

Student perceptions were starkly divided by political ideology, however. Based solely on the responses of its conservative students, A&M would rank first in the College Free Speech Rankings. If its liberal students alone were counted, however, A&M would fall into the bottom quartile. One A&M undergraduate called the campus “pretty conservative,” and expressed reluctance to share a more progressive point of view with peers.

Nevertheless, students were generally confident in the university administration’s commitment to defending free speech. Fifty-eight percent of A&M students surveyed expressed confidence that the administration would support an embattled speaker in a speech-related controversy.

Perhaps the area where Texas A&M most separates itself from UT Austin is in the “speech code” grade given by FIRE. While UT Austin was given a “red light,” A&M received a coveted “green light” from FIRE, signifying that the university’s codes of conduct do not inhibit students’ First Amendment rights.

In 2019, FIRE’s vice president of policy reform Azhar Majeed lauded Texas A&M’s commitment to free expression. “Texas A&M is the lone institution in the Lone Star State that earns FIRE’s highest rating for respecting constitutionally protected speech rights,” Majeed said. “We encourage colleges across the state to follow Texas A&M’s lead and put the First Amendment first.”

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