In early October, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in conjunction with College Pulse and RealClearEducation, released a report ranking the free speech climate at American colleges. Boston College, a university unaccustomed to finding itself at the bottom of rankings, was ranked 151 out of 154, with a total of 159 schools surveyed.
One student attributed BC’s low ranking to the reaction of students to speakers on campus, the most notable being the protests opposing the visit from Andrew Klavan, a conservative speaker brought to BC in 2019 by BC Republicans. In the days leading up to his appearance, several student groups had objected to his history of Islamophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic comments.
“As a member of the BC Republicans last year one of our speakers had many protesters outside the room,” one student said in response to the survey. “They were banging on the walls and we had to be ushered out of the room by police at the end of the talk. I felt that my ability to speak in the future was limited because I was afraid of dealing with something like that again.”
Corbin Bernal, president of the College Democrats of BC and CSOM ’23, said that it is essential for students to have the ability to respond to events happening around them.
“If you’re going to host somebody on campus, if you’re going to host an event, I think at the same time you have to acknowledge that there’s going to be people that disagree with you,” he said. “That disagreement isn’t them trying to shut you down, that disagreement is them expressing their freedom of speech just like you are.”
BC Republicans declined to comment on the FIRE ranking.
FIRE has received funding from various conservative groups, including the Charles Koch Institute, Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation, according to The New York Times. FIRE’s website says that it is nonpartisan.
Each school, according to the website, was ranked based on seven different factors: openness, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, administrative support for free speech, comfort expressing ideas, disruptive conduct, and a FIRE speech code rating, a rating of the written policy for each school. Students were asked a broad range of questions, catering to both liberal and conservative beliefs, as well as questions about the climate surrounding speech at the schools.
R. Shep Melnick, the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Professor of American Politics at BC, said he firmly believes that BC as a university can set a better example for its students.
“I wish the University would do more of modeling the type of civil debate that we want students to engage in,” he said. “So when we have a speaker on a controversial issue, discuss it, have someone who presents an alternative point of view, don’t have just one speaker up there, have a debate.”
In response to a question asking students to share an instance where they felt their speech was limited, one student shared their hesitancy about expressing conservative views in an academic setting.
“I’m a Republican and if I am going to write about a conservative topic on a paper it is a given that I need to meet with the professor first to gauge if they will penalize me for my views or not,” the student said in the report.
The complaints from students in the survey went beyond right-leaning partisan politics.
“I believe there should be an LGBT+ center on campus and I feel uncomfortable bringing this up to the administration who may go in the opposite direction since this is a Jesuit university,” another student wrote.
Another student mentioned an incident in April where, following several bias-motivated incidents at BC, the host of a webinar on student behavior disabled the chat function after numerous students criticized BC’s response to the vandalism on the women’s Multicultural Learning Experience floor in Xavier Hall.
According to the University’s student demonstration policy, any demonstration must be registered and approved by the associate vice president for student engagement and formation. Demonstrations must also have a University-affiliated organizer to coordinate the event.
Melnick called the restrictions that BC has put on speech “silly,” citing an instance where students were told that they were not allowed to hang up flyers because it would result in littering. He also suggested that the University reduce the barriers to student demonstration.
“We should try to reduce the number of hoops, and to basically have content neutrality, which means that we’re not going to base your right to protest on the basis of what the subject matter of protest is,” he said.
Bernal agreed that changes need to be made regarding the administration. According to Bernal’s observations, BC rarely accepts invitations to meet with groups on campus.
“[I] immediately thought about last year, how there was that protest that got shut down at the last minute because they said they needed approval and BC didn’t approve of it,” he said, referencing a protest hosted by Climate Justice at BC in the spring.
The University declined to comment on the FIRE ranking.
When asked about the ways that their speech feels limited, some students cited the classroom. While some students feel strongly about the fact that they must alter their opinions depending on the professor, others believe professors to be much more accepting.
“If you got points off because what you said was incorrect or you didn’t give a full answer, I think you need to recognize that and not claim that as the professor being biased,” Bernal said.
Conservative students in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences reported in the survey that they either stay quiet during classes or pretend to share beliefs with professors, and the same goes for liberal leaning students in the Carroll School of Management.
“In college classes I have two sets of opinions, ones I hold personally and the ones that my professors will grade favorably,” one student said in the report. “It is clear that professors are not interested in hearing the actual opinions of students on topics when they do not align with the professor’s personal beliefs.”
Featured Image by Nicole Vagra / Heights Staff