At first glance, Pennsylvania doesn’t stand out in the second annual College Free Speech Rankings, the results of a survey of more than 37,000 students in 159 colleges. You won’t find any of the state’s colleges listed near the top of the rankings, alongside Claremont McKenna College, nor at the bottom, next to the two-time national worst DePauw University.
But on one particularly important metric – students’ level of comfort in expressing themselves – Pennsylvania’s schools stand out, and in a way that reveals a disturbing trend in America’s smaller university campuses.
By this measure, Haverford College, Bucknell University, and the University of Pennsylvania rank among the 10 campuses with the most reticent student populations nationally. Carnegie Mellon University isn’t far behind, ranking 18th on the list.
More encouragingly, Temple University ranks among the top three in the nation when it comes to students’ comfort expressing themselves, and Penn State University came in at a respectable 18th place. The University of Pittsburgh, however, earned a mediocre ranking of 86.
These results coincide with a larger finding from the surveys – conducted by RealClearEducation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the research firm College Pulse – that colleges with large student bodies tend to foster more tolerable speech environments than their comparatively smaller, often private, peers.
The question is: Why?
“The administration is not the biggest hurdle to free speech, the students are,” said a Penn student who requested anonymity. “I’ve seen the far-left emboldened, and they believe that their tactics of suppressing discourse work. They get loud, get angry, stand there, and scream until their demands are met.”
Indeed, even compared to a decade before, college administrations no longer play the dominant role as the censor on large and small campuses.
As former free speech attorney David French recently explained, “Two decades of relentless litigation and activism have turned the tide . . . Only a quarter of universities now possess clearly unconstitutional speech codes, and they’re largely unenforced.”
But no such activism in support of free speech has been aimed at the current generation of students, and the result is clear: an astounding 66% of student respondents nationally support shouting down speakers who don’t share their views – an increase of 4% from last year. And nearly one in four – an increase of 5% from 2020 – said that they supported using violence to stop certain speech.
As the survey noted, this increasing population of students prone to intolerance are better equipped to coalesce around a dominant viewpoint and identify those who disagree within small student bodies. Consequently, they’re now quashing dissent on campuses like Pennsylvania’s private colleges.
Stories of students organizing to isolate, intimidate, and cancel speakers and professors are told with frightening frequency.
The Penn student explained how radical left groups on campus organize to cancel speaking events. In 2019, for example, they canceled a speech by Thomas Homan, the former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They blocked entranceways and egresses, causing a fire code violation.
When Penn’s College Republicans hosted Homan again in January 2020, the event organizers “had to be tactical by creating ways to get in and out of the building in coordination with public security,” while “foot[ing] the bill for police overtime required,” the student said.
Dawn Toguchi, executive director of the Open Discourse Coalition at Bucknell University, similarly told of a student-led attempt to ostracize those who invited conservative author Heather Mac Donald to speak on campus. One student used a megaphone to “read the names of the faculty members” who sponsored the event.
Toguchi says that administrations must do more to combat student-led hostility to free speech.
“They must take a strong leadership position to encourage discourse and debate, and respect for a true diversity of viewpoints,” she said.
Without such leadership, it’s clear that this generation of students will continue to scream until their demands are met on campus – and move on from there to do the same in conference rooms, communities, and government.