Free Speech Suffers at Harvard, Fares a Little Better at Yale

Free Speech Suffers at Harvard, Fares a Little Better at Yale
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Harvard and Yale are two of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. But when it comes to free speech on campus, which offers its students a more tolerant, robust climate?

A collaborative effort between RealClearEducation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and CollegePulse helps answer that question. The College Free Speech Rankings represents a groundbreaking attempt to measure the attitudes of American college students toward free expression. Nearly 20,000 undergraduates at 55 major American colleges and universities were included in the survey. Students were asked about their own commitments to free speech as well as their perception of peer, faculty, and administrative commitments to the same.

Responses were coded, partitioned by institution, and used to create an Overall Score – a composite grade to evaluate the state of free speech at a particular institution. The Overall Score can be disaggregated into five distinct ratings: tolerance, openness, administrative support for free speech, self-expression, and the existence of speech codes on campus. The first four scores are determined by student responses, while the “speech code” score is determined by FIRE’s review of campus codes of conduct.

Harvard performed dismally. Its Overall Score of 49.6 ranked 46th of the 55 colleges and universities included in the survey. Sixty-nine percent of Harvard undergraduates surveyed were unwilling to say that it was never acceptable to shout down a controversial speaker on campus. Forty-one percent of students were not confident that the university administration would side with an embattled speaker in a free-speech controversy.

In the open-ended portion of the survey, several Harvard students described their peers as intolerant of dissenting points of view. One student, a self-described “very liberal person,” mentioned how “conversations are shut down by other liberals” on campus. There is “a widespread fear of offending others” that pervades much of the political discourse, the student said.

Another Harvard student described how the faculty’s strident presentation of certain issues can cause dissenting students to self-censor. “When professors clearly support one side of an argument in class, it makes it difficult to voice an opposing opinion even if the professor allows for it,” the student wrote.

Harvard received a “red light” from FIRE for some sections of its student codes of conduct that undermine students’ First Amendment rights. While Harvard is a private university and has no legal obligation to offer its students and faculty such protections, the university claims to cherish free speech and should honor its stated commitment to the ideal. The University-Wide Statement of Rights and Responsibilities claims that free expression is “essential” to Harvard’s “nature as an academic community.” Still, FIRE’s analysis of the campus codes of conduct found “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Yale, meantime, is still living down an infamous incident from the fall of 2015. In a moment that quickly went viral, a group of students screamed at the master of Silliman residential college, Nicholas Christakis, after his wife told the students that they, as adults, did not require guidance about which Halloween costumes were and were not appropriate.

The Free Speech Rankings suggest, however, that relative to other colleges and universities, Yale is committed to creating a climate open to the free exchange of ideas. Its overall score (55) is 12th-best among the 55 institutions, and its administrative-support score (68.6) puts the university in the upper quintile of all the schools included. Perhaps the students surveyed recalled how, immediately after the incident outside of Silliman, administrators at Yale emailed students at the residential college and pledged their support for Nicholas and Erika Christakis.

Still, at least one student at Yale, who spoke to RealClearEducation on background, is less optimistic about the state of speech at the university.

“Ideas that are even remotely conservative are typically painted as problematic and quickly set aside,” the student said. “The frequency with which I’ve witnessed professors dismiss traditional or conservative ideas has made me discouraged to voice opinions freely, or even process my thoughts aloud.”

The student also noted that the administration frequently sends messages “in which clear political sides are taken.”

“I have witnessed peers respectfully voice conservative opinions in and outside of the classroom environment, only to be the targets of snide and dismissive remarks on community Facebook groups. I have never seen this phenomenon occur in reverse,” the student told RealClearEducation.

Indeed, the survey results show some areas of concern at Yale. Twenty percent of students surveyed – a disturbingly high proportion – were unwilling to say that violence is never acceptable to stop a speech on campus. “While I’m on the left side of the spectrum,” one student wrote in the open-ended portion of the survey, “it can be challenging having opinions that don’t fall perfectly in [line with] common leftist thought.”

Both Harvard and Yale are rightly esteemed for their academic rigor and longstanding commitments to excellence. The Free Speech Rankings demonstrate, however, that both institutions have significant room to improve in the area of free expression.

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