- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A leading free speech advocacy group has released its annual list of the most restrictive campuses in country, placing at the top a private Massachusetts college that fired its sustainability director over a satirical social media post urging Iran to bomb American cultural sites after President Trump had issued a similar threat to Tehran.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list presented Wednesday includes schools such as Jones College in Mississippi, Harvard University and the University of Scranton, where a budding Turning Point USA chapter alleges it has been denied recognition because of its conservative political views.

“This year’s ‘worst-of-the-worst’ list includes a college that fired a professor for an innocuous joke on social media, another that allowed its student government to flatly reject a student club because of its conservative beliefs, one that unilaterally canceled a faculty-organized lecture, and a college that suspended a librarian for curating a historical display highlighting the university’s own photos of its racist past,” FIRE said its announcement.

Ranging from Ivy League schools to private, religious colleges in rural America, the list spans the political spectrum and spotlights overly restrictive and punitive university policies, from requiring approval before hanging pamphlets to expelling students or firing faculty for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Case in point: Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, fired Asheen Phansey over a tweet that the sustainability director later said was a “lame attempt at humor.”

“In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomenei should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb,” Mr. Phansey tweeted. “Um … Mall of America? … Kardashian residence?”

“Babson College clearly can’t take a joke,” FIRE wrote in naming Babson to the inauspicious list. “At a private school like Babson that makes promises of free expression, a joke like Phansey’s could ignite a range of acceptable responses from the university.”

Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, drew FIRE’s ire over punishment of a librarian who had curated a display case featuring photographs of students at the small liberal arts college in 1926 wearing blackface. The photographs, posted during the national uproar over Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school blackface scandal, prompted the librarian’s suspension.

A Doane spokesman said Wednesday the school continues to define a “new academic freedom policy for the university” and believes FIRE has not credited the university for its work since the controversy.

“The university is disappointed to learn of this ranking by FIRE and feels it does not accurately represent the work that has been done to better define and protect academic freedom among its students, faculty, and staff,” the spokesman said in an email.

Other schools making the top 10:

Middlebury College in Vermont, where the administration canceled a speech by a visiting Polish academic.

Long Island University Post in Brookville, New York, where a student was investigated for distributing “forbidden flyers.”

The University of Connecticut, where campus police investigated a student who used the “N” word.

Syracuse University, where conservative student organizations say they have been banned.

Portland State University in Oregon, where campus police stood by while a man with a cowbell interrupted a College Republicans meeting.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, earned FIRE’s tongue-in-cheek “Lifetime Censorship Award.” The advocacy group says the school has used heavy-handed tactics such as erecting fences and tearing down flyers to stifle student protests.

A Rensselaer spokesman said in a written statement that the private research school supports free speech.

“Rensselaer embraces free speech and freedom of expression, and we are committed to maintaining a safe campus environment that enables students to be as productive as possible in their education and research activities,” said Richie Hunter, vice president for strategic communications and external relations.



• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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