According to a new study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech advocacy and research group, Rice students show relatively low tolerance for certain controversial opinions and feel that their administration and professors do not clearly protect free speech.
The study collects survey data from 159 colleges around the country. Six Texas colleges are included in the ranking: Texas A&M University (TAMU), Southern Methodist University (SMU), Texas Tech, UT, UTD, and Rice.
TAMU was 25 on the list, the highest rank out of the six. Rice was the least tolerant in Texas with a rank of 135.
- Texas A&M – 25th
- SMU – 88th
- Texas Tech – 89th
- UT – 102nd
- UTD – 124th
- Rice – 135th
Baylor University was included in the survey but did not appear in the ranking because FIRE keeps a separate category for schools that openly prioritize other values above free speech, often religious or military schools.
Importantly, the survey is not a rating of official speech policies. It is a simple questionnaire given to students regarding how comfortable they feel expressing themselves and their tolerance for the expression of others.
For example, one section of the survey asked respondents how strongly they would support or oppose their schools allowing speakers to promote certain controversial ideas. 38 percent of Rice students would support the rights of a speaker with the message, “The police should be abolished because they are racist,” the highest percentage out of all the Texas schools. Rice tied with UT for the most support for a speaker with the message, “Looting is a justifiable form of protest,” with 21 percent of students at both schools saying they would support their school allowing the message.
By contrast, 17 percent of Rice students would support the rights of a speaker with the message, “Abortion should be completely illegal.” Only one school showed lower support for the rights of a speaker with this message: Texas Tech, at 16 percent.
With regards to campus leadership, students at Rice seemed to find their administration less committed to free expression than other schools. 3 percent of Rice students said it was “extremely clear” that their administration protects free speech, the lowest out of any included Texas school. By comparison, 20 percent of Texas Tech students said it was “extremely clear” that their administration protects free speech.
Another question asked respondents how comfortable they would feel publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial topic. At both Texas Tech and UTD, 14 percent of students said they would feel very comfortable challenging their professors, the highest percentage out of all the Texas schools. Rice came in last with only 4 percent of students saying they would feel very comfortable challenging their professor.
More students at Rice than any other included Texas school said it was “not at all likely” for their administration to defend the speech rights of a controversial speaker.
Rice also led the pack with the greatest share of students willing to block others from attending a campus speech. Compared to the other schools, Rice students are also more willing to shout down campus speakers to prevent them from speaking.
The collected results of the nationwide survey reflect the Texas trend of greater tolerance for left-leaning controversial views than right-leaning controversial views. 11 percent of students in the total survey would strongly support the rights of a speaker with the message, “Transgender people have a mental disorder.” By contrast, 34 percent of students would strongly support the rights of a speaker with the message, “White people are collectively responsible for structural racism and use it to protect their privilege.”
The survey’s authors also note widespread willingness to disrupt or stop campus lectures. Two-thirds of all students say it is acceptable to shout down speakers to prevent them from speaking. 40 percent of students say blocking others from attending a campus speech is acceptable, and just under a quarter of students say violence can be acceptable to stop a campus event — a 4 percent increase from last year’s data.
- More students at Baylor than any other Texas school expressed comfort with challenging their professors in a written assignment, even though only 36 percent of Baylor students said they would be comfortable challenging their professor verbally in public. In fact, the gap in comfort between verbal and written challenges to professors was widest among Baylor students.
- Though Rice had the greatest share of students willing to shout down speakers to prevent them from speaking, Texas A&M took second place. The same was true for willingness to block students from attending a campus event.
- Texas Tech had the greatest share of students say it is never acceptable to stop a campus speech with violence. It also had the greatest share of students — 2 percent — say that it is always acceptable to stop a campus speech with violence. Sample sizes for all schools were around 250 students.
- The two UT System schools, UT and UTD, took first and second place respectively for students most willing to stop a campus speech with violence.
- Aside from Baylor, Texas A&M had the smallest share of students say their administration clearly protects free speech.
Another free speech advocacy group sued UT over its vague speech policies and won last year. After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals called UT’s Campus Climate Response Team “the clenched fist in the velvet glove of student speech regulation” and remanded the case, UT agreed to change its speech codes and the case was resolved.
Survey questions and answers for each of the included Texas schools can be read here.
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