The largest ever free speech survey of college student bodies ranked the University of Texas (UT) second from the bottom in tolerance for expression.
The survey, conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and published yesterday, ranks UT 54th out of 55 prominent U.S. colleges including the Ivy League, other elite universities, and “as many large state universities as possible” according to FIRE Polling and Analytics Senior Research Fellow Sean Stevens. The survey measures student perceptions, especially willingness to talk about contentious issues and support for tactics like shouting speakers down.
“So, based on our analysis and the previous literature, the two most heavily weighted components are the items that deal with openness to discuss controversial topics and tolerance of controversial speakers,” Stevens said. “The schools that did very well in our rankings tended to have higher tolerance for controversial speakers and/or the administration was perceived as being very strong supporters of freedom of speech and free expression on campus. So, in terms of both of those things, those were lower for UT Austin.”
The Texan spoke to members of three student clubs about freedom of expression at UT: the chapter chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT), the leader of left-wing philosophy and discussion group Platypus Society, and the president of the University Democrats (UD).
When asked whether students or the administration posed a greater threat to freedom of expression, YCT chairman Jordan Clements’ answer was simple: “The student body. By a long shot.”
“UT is a public institution, so their free speech is going to be better than the average private school. However, it is still far from perfect, especially considering… policies such as their campus climate response team, where students can anonymously report students for what they deem to be hate speech, which prompts an investigation by the university,” Clements said. “The student body has been much more active trying to get things shut down. They’ve been much more active in being disruptive.”
According to survey data, 70 percent of UT students say shoutdowns are acceptable, compared to an average of 62 percent among the schools surveyed. Louis Albert Haling, founder of the UT chapter of the Platypus discussion group, said with some hesitance that he has also seen a hostile campus climate towards conservative groups.
“I mean, I can only speak to my personal kind of life experience with it. I’ve never had a problem with the university or the student body stating that we couldn’t do something or say something… I know that right-wing groups in the past have, you know, been subject to students or, like, actions where they’ve tried to shut down conservative student group events and things like that,” Haling said. “I know anecdotally that there has been a climate where, at times, conservative student groups have felt attacked.”
UD president Alexandra Evans disagreed, saying that claims of campus hostility were not valid and emphasizing that a potentially “unwelcome” atmosphere doesn’t limit speech.
“I think a lot of these organizations have events, like large events, that are made to manipulate college students… and when people are disgusted by that, these organizations take that as stifling their free speech. That doesn’t mean you’re not able to say what you want to say, and these people don’t have to engage with you because sometimes you’re promoting things that are racist or sexist or homophobic,” Evans said.
“In regards to the campus population, I’ve never seen anyone feel unsafe or unwelcome at tabling… I don’t think any right-wing group is unsafe on this campus. Unwelcome, maybe, but that’s the student populace, and that’s not a stifling of free speech in my opinion… I don’t feel that their claim [to campus hostility] is valid.”
UT’s speech policies invited a lawsuit from free speech advocacy group Speech First and earned them a red FIRE ranking, meaning the university has policies that offended students or administrators might wield at will.
“They are rated as to how clear or vague they are in terms of rights to free speech and free expression. So, a green light… just means that they don’t have any kind of policies on the books that could be arbitrarily used to punish students or faculty for some kind of incident. A yellow means there’s some vague policies but it doesn’t rise to the level of this being incredibly concerning,” Stevens explained. “And then a red light rating means that there’s a number of policies on this campus that are concerning, that they’re worded in ways that can be maybe abstractly or vaguely applied.”
A red light rating is second only to a “warning,” which means that the university openly professes to dissuade freedom of expression.
“A warning effectively conveys that the school actually places other values ahead of freedom of expression, freedom of speech. So the only school in our rankings that has that is BYU,” Stevens said. “It’s very rare for schools to get a warning. It’s usually either religious institutions or the military academies that have warning ratings.”
Stevens stressed that the rankings are distinct from the survey itself, which focuses on student perceptions rather than campus policies. He also added that the survey collects mere “snapshots” of campus environments and that FIRE hopes to conduct more surveys with a larger pool of schools, which could improve UT’s place.
“Like any public opinion survey, there’s a modest degree of error here. We tried to sample universities that were well-represented in the panel that College Pulse has, but you know, it’s one sample. It’s a snapshot in time,” Stevens said. “Our goal is really to not only survey these 55 campuses, but we’d like to really expand this and see what 100, 200, 300, 500 universities look like, and then, you know, if we did have that kind of data, it could turn out that UT Austin looks fairly good. It’s also the first attempt of anyone trying to do this.”
Overall survey data and data specific to UT are embedded below.
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