Free speech: The forbidden fruit of top 25 liberal arts colleges

Haleigh McGill

Haleigh McGill
Haleigh McGill

Throughout the year, many of the nation’s college campuses, mainly liberal arts-focused colleges, have stirred up a storm around the issue of free speech. Although the right to free speech is clearly protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment, it appears that the top 25 liberal arts colleges in the country don’t care.

In an article regarding censorship from Campus Reform, author Sterling Beard breaks down a report released in January by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) revealing that these top 25 schools, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, do not recognize the value or the importance of practicing free speech and expression. According to Beard’s article, “ACTA reports that 14 of the top schools were given a ‘Red Light’ freedom of speech rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) because they have ‘at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.’


An additional eleven schools have a ‘Yellow Light’ rating because their policies ‘restrict a limited amount of protected expression or could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.’ None of the schools, which included private and public institutions, received a ‘Green Light’ rating from FIRE, which signifies that a school’s policies do not imperil free speech.”

I see these findings as a major cause for concern, especially because the dictionary definition of “liberal” is “favoring or permitting freedom of action … with respect to matters of personal belief or expression; favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible … as guaranteed by law and secured by government protection of civil liberties.”

Some of the faculty members and students who represent these institutions have become irrational and even hostile when it comes to matters of free speech that don’t necessarily line up with popular opinion. In a Wall Street Journal article regarding Smith College‘s alumnae panel that addressed issues surrounding freedom of expression and the “intolerance for diverse opinions that prevails on many campuses,” author Harvey Silvergate makes an excellent, encompassing statement about free speech: “Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal arts education can’t survive.”

Academic institutions that fail to adhere to the proper rules surrounding free speech – which could encompass both societal norms and those put in place by the constitution – act as an intellectual and social detriment to students. It’s quite literally a setback, putting those students back to a time where speaking freely was not a right nor was it truly welcomed.

Students choose to continue into higher education in order to broaden their horizons and the scope of possibility, not to fit into a suppressive, cookie-cutter template of what those with institutional power think those students should do or say. 

This is not the Dark Ages, and we are not oppressed American students still fighting for our right to speak freely. The First Amendment reminds us that freedom of speech is already a right, and it should be practiced and accepted as such in order for our society to progress and move forward. Students have that fire for learning, cultivating new ideas, standing up and speaking out. The college years are when that fire is at its brightest, and no member of an academic institution has the right to put it out.

Collegian Columnist Haleigh McGill can be reached at or on Twitter @haleighmcgill.