September 23, 2021 3 min read

Princetonians for Free Speech original content:

A ranking, based on a survey of students, released today by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), put Princeton dead last in the Ivy League and a dismal 134 out of 159 colleges and universities surveyed. Princeton has also fallen in the ranking, as last year it was fourth in the Ivy League. A FIRE press release with a link to the report, “2021 College Free Speech Ranking,” can be accessed here.

This is the second annual free speech ranking released by FIRE, a highly respected non-profit that is “committed to free speech and open inquiry in colleges and universities in the United States.” FIRE is non-partisan and defends speech by professors and students regardless of their political orientation.

The ranking is compiled largely from of a survey of 37,000 college students at 159 colleges and universities by College Plus, which specializes in surveys of such students. The Princeton sample had 250 students. One of the seven factors used in compiling the ranking is FIRE’s own analysis of the schools’ written policies on speech, in which Princeton received a negative “red light” rating. Survey results are used to determine the scores for the other six factors -- for example, tolerance for controversial speakers, comfort in expressing ideas, and the perception of students that the school protects free speech.

The overall survey results paint a depressing picture of both the understanding of, and support for, free speech among today’s college students and the atmosphere for free speech on campuses. Thus, Princeton’s low ranking is even more troublesome in that it is below many schools that clearly have deep problems regarding free speech. For example, for all schools, only 34 percent of students thought it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker or prevent a speaker from speaking on campus. In other words, 66 percent thought such actions might be at least sometimes acceptable, up 4 percent from last year. In this category, Princeton did marginally better than most schools, as 38 percent said it was never acceptable. Still, 62 percent of Princeton students thought it might at least sometimes be acceptable to shout down or prevent a speaker from speaking. Also, according to FIRE: “Generally, students showed much greater intolerance for conservative speakers.”

For all schools in the survey, 76 percent said it was never acceptable to use violence to stop a speaker, while again Princeton was better, at 83 percent. But 17 percent of Princeton students thought it might be acceptable to use violence to stop a speaker.  While most of the 17 percent said it would “rarely” be acceptable, it is still a shocking number.

On another question, 50 percent of Princeton students said they occasionally to fairly often felt they could not express their opinion because of how students, a professor, or an administrator would respond. One member of the class of 2022 is quoted as saying, “Cancel culture is very strong at Princeton so uploading unpopular opinions to social media is very dangerous.”

In response to the question, “How comfortable would you feel expressing your views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion?” 29 percent of Princeton students answered, “somewhat uncomfortable” and 25 percent answered, “very uncomfortable.” For all schools, 18 percent answered “very uncomfortable.”

Among the Ivy League schools, Columbia, at number 26, and Yale, at 33, ranked the best. The next lowest to Princeton’s ranking of 134 was Harvard, at 129. FIRE encourages students and prospective students to use these rankings in choosing what school to attend.

The survey was taken from February 15 to May 30 of this year. The situation regarding free speech on the Princeton campus has deteriorated further since then. Last month, in the Princeton orientation, incoming students were presented with a lengthy presentation on racial issues at Princeton that denigrated free speech, including a statement by a professor that characterized free speech as “masculinized bravado” and went on to advocate for a free speech “that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and anti-racist social justice at that.” The presentation also left an impression that Princeton does not take its own rules seriously since it attacked a current professor for a statement the University had explicitly stated was protected under Princeton’s rules. For a PFS op-ed on this orientation click here.

Despite the critical importance of the topic of free speech, there was nothing in the orientation about Princeton’s own free speech rules or the Chicago Principles on which they are based. (For an overview of Princeton’s free speech rules click here.)

PFS will be posting an editorial on the FIRE Free Speech Rankings and what they mean for Princeton and will also cover any response Princeton may have to the rankings.

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