Claremont McKenna College became the first college in California to earn the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) highest “green light” rating for free speech last month.
FIRE, a nonprofit organization that describes its mission as defending freedom of speech on American campuses, rates the speech codes of more than 450 colleges and universities “based on the extent to which [they] imperil constitutionally protected expression,” said Laura Beltz, an author at FIRE. Thirty-nine institutions have achieved a green rating, but CMC is the first liberal arts college to do so.
Although private colleges nationally are not legally bound by the First Amendment, which only prevents the government and state universities from restricting free speech, most private colleges still uphold principles of free expression.
In California, private and public colleges and universities are bound by the the Leonard Law, which compels them to comply with the First Amendment in protecting speech.
CMC’s debates about free speech ramped up last April, when 5C students blocked attendees from entering the Athenaeum for conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald’s talk.
In February, Romi Ferder CM ’20, Charlie Harris CM ’19, Sophia Helland CM ’20, and Joe Noss CM ’20 presented a campus survey of free speech at the Athenaeum.
According to the survey, 72.5 percent of the 120 students that responded think that the environment on campus restricts students from saying things they believe because others might be offended, while 27.5 percent think the environment on campus does not.
“There’s definitely things I’ve held back in a classroom setting because I knew it wouldn’t be incredibly palatable to the group I’m with,” Noss said. “But if limits on free speech means you not saying something because you fear social ostracization, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because there are some things you shouldn’t say.”
George Thomas, government professor at CMC, said he finds overly restrictive college hate speech policies problematic.
“It worries me when offensive or uncomfortable speech gets characterized as hate speech,” he said. “I’m worried students are going to shut up, silence themselves, and not even think about certain issues because they don’t want to make one misstep or they’re worried any statement they make is going to be taken as offensive.”
FIRE maintains a disinvitation database that keeps track of attempts by students or faculty to disinvite speakers with whom they disagree. Disinvitation attempts at the 5Cs include the 2014 disinvitation of conservative political commentator George Will from Scripps, student criticism of 2016 Scripps commencement speaker Madeline Albright, and student criticism of Pomona’s hiring of sociology professor Alice Goffman last year.
According to FIRE, disinvitation attempts and college speech codes are examples of a growing “culture of censorship on college campuses over the last 15 years.”
Currently, Pomona College, Pitzer College, Scripps College, and Harvey Mudd College all have harassment policies, internet usage policies, posting and distribution policies, or policies on bias and hate speech that FIRE rates as yellow.
A yellow rating means policies “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression,” according to FIRE.
One reason Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd have yellow ratings is that all four schools have similar bias-related incident protocols in the student handbook that define bias-related incidents as “expressions of hostility,” which FIRE considers overly an broad definition that includes protected speech.
“CMC worked with FIRE to revise policies on disorderly conduct and internet usage to First Amendment standards,” Beltz said. “CMC also explained that the school does not utilize the bias incident policy enforced at the other Claremont Colleges … assuaging our concerns about that policy for CMC.”
Pomona, Pitzer, and Scripps countered Beltz’s claims and affirmed their commitments to protecting free speech on campus.
“Pomona College strongly supports free speech, academic freedom and open dialogue. Our commitment to those values is enduring,” Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall wrote in an email to TSL.
Pitzer spokesperson Anna Chang focused on the Pitzer community, rather than ratings systems like FIRE’s, in an email to TSL.
“External ratings do not define the principles, ethics, and proven scholarship that guide our support for Pitzer community members who express themselves with respect for others. Nor will they supersede our commitment to our institutional mission and values,” Chang wrote.
Scripps spokesperson Carolyn Robles also emphasized the college’s commitment to free speech.
“Scripps believes that learning and teaching thrive in an environment conducive to freedom of belief, inquiry and speech,” Robles Wrote. Recognizing that such expressions may offend, provoke, and disturb, Scripps affirms its dedication to encourage rather than limit expression.”
Harvey Mudd College did not respond to a request for comment.