Earlier this year, University of Connecticut (UConn) leadership asserted that a bill (H.B. 6567) that would’ve established a campus policy on freedom of expression was “not necessary.” They may want to rethink their stance now that the institution has received a less-than-stellar rating for its commitment to free speech.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) — a nonprofit organization that defends and promotes free speech, academic freedom and due process rights in educational settings — unveiled its College Free Speech Rankings report on Tuesday (Sept. 6). According to the findings, UConn exhibits a below average speech climate, marking a decline from the previous year when it was rated as average. The school ranks 220 out of 248 colleges and universities surveyed. The previous report had UConn ranked 105 out of 203.
Students enrolled in four-year degree programs were surveyed via a mobile app and an online portal between Jan. 13 to June 30, 2023, and according to FIRE’s Director of Polling and Analytics Sean Stevens, “Each year, the climate on college campuses grows more inhospitable to free speech.” He also noted that “some of the most prestigious universities in our country have the most repressive administrations.
Stevens feels “Students should know that a college degree at certain schools may come at the expense of their free speech rights.”
According to the report, 34 percent of UConn students felt “very uncomfortable” when it came to openly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial political issue, while 21 percent felt similarly about disagreeing with a professor in a writing assignment on a political topic. In contrast, only 9 and 10 percent, respectively, reported feeling very comfortable in these situations.
One student from the class of 2023 said, “Education professors throw a certain ideology at you and expect that you agree with it and shut you down or give bad grades if you don’t.”
Students exhibited somewhat lower levels of discomfort when discussing controversial political topics outside the classroom, with 19 percent expressing that they felt very uncomfortable sharing their views in common campus spaces like dining halls or lounges. On the flip side, 14 percent reported feeling very comfortable in these situations.
Even more concerning is that over half of those surveyed — 52 percent — indicated that they refrained from expressing their opinions on various subjects due to concerns about potential reactions from fellow students, professors or the administration. Additionally, a significant 75 percent of respondents reported feeling pressure to avoid discussions involving controversial topics within their classes.
According to FIRE’s classification, UConn is characterized by having a predominantly liberal viewpoint with an alarming number of students who think it is acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus. The data reveals that 6 percent of students consider it always acceptable, while a notable 36 percent believe it is sometimes acceptable. In contrast, 24 percent firmly assert that such actions are never acceptable.
A shocking 14 percent of students held the belief that resorting to violence to stop a campus speech is either always or sometimes acceptable. (maybe they’re taking notes from those who wreaked havoc on campus following the Husky’s NCAA championship win this past April).
In March, FIRE submitted written testimony endorsing H.B 6567, along with recommendations aimed at enhancing the bill’s clarity. These suggestions included the need to differentiate between “constitutionally protected protests and unprotected heckler’s vetoes,” as well as to provide clearer definitions of what constitutes a public area.
They also highlighted that “campus free speech legislation has passed in approximately 20 states, oftentimes with overwhelming bipartisan support, and signed into law by both Democratic and Republican governors.”
The House passed the bill with a vote of 99 to 51 but it ultimately died in the Senate. Given the bipartisan backing it received in the House, there is a possibility that we might see its return during the 2024 session.
Creating an environment where students feel at ease voicing their beliefs within the classroom without fear of facing repercussions cannot be emphasized enough in the arena of higher education. Protecting free speech on campus is essential for fostering a vibrant, intellectually stimulating and democratic environment that prepares students for the real world.
Suppressing speech risks creating echo chambers where students only encounter like-minded ideas. This stifles critical thinking and personal growth. This “groupthink” mirrors the cautionary tale portrayed in George Orwell’s classic, “1984” and acts as a suppressant of innovation and creativity.
UConn, meanwhile, receives “among the highest levels of state government funding than nearly every other public university in the nation,” according to a Feb. 15 statement from Gov. Ned Lamont and has also faced recent criticism by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) for spending like a drunken sailor. WSJ reported that spending between 2002 and 2022 increased by a staggering 73%, outpacing the growth in enrollment by a significant margin.
As a recipient of public funds, UConn has a duty to uphold the principles written in the Constitution, including the First Amendment. So yes, it is necessary to establish a campus policy that protects freedom of expression.
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