By Erin Shanahan
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) ranked Fordham as one of the top 10 worst schools for free speech in late February, highlighting recent events surrounding Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Lincoln Center. In a social media survey conducted by The Fordham Ram, members of the Fordham community said their speech at Fordham is restricted, but not in the classroom.
FIRE is a non-profit group which focuses on civil liberties in academia, specifically on college campuses in the United States. The group’s main goal is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to its website.
FIRE members “review the record each year and shine a spotlight on the 10 worst schools for free speech,” according to the article. Neither The Huffington Post article nor FIRE’s website highlights any metrics for ranking schools, but rather the organization reviews highlighted news from universities in making the list.
Fordham University received a “red traffic light” rating from FIRE. The traffic light refers to FIRE’s Speech Code Rating System, which informs you of FIRE’s opinion of the degree to which free speech is curtailed at a particular institution,” according to the organization’s webpage.
For instance, FIRE highlighted the recent controversy regarding SJP in ranking Fordham one of the worst schools for free speech.
According to the Huffington Post article, “Fordham’s persistent refusal to live up to the promises it makes to its students earned it warnings from FIRE—and a place on this list.”
Christopher Rodgers, dean of students, issued a statement to The Fordham Ram regarding FIRE’s ranking and questioned its measures:
“Internet lists published to generate publicity or raise funds for various groups seem to be more and more common these days, but the methodology used to compile them is often mysterious. I have to admit to being a bit puzzled at our appearance on any list critical of our support for free speech and expression. It seems possible that folks are conflating the freedom to express one’s views on campus — something we take very seriously — with lack of civility or with entitlement to money, access to space, and other unrelated benefits. Though I do not see the connection, I am quite proud of the fact that our community has not once denied any invited speaker the opportunity to appear on campus nor denied any student group the space to demonstrate in order to express its views. Civility and respect for one another’s dignity will always be expectations as we share those views and listen carefully to those with whom we disagree, however.”
The Fordham Ram’s survey asked community members on a scale of one to 10, “overall, how restricted is speech at Fordham University in your opinion?” Participants rated it an average of 6.93. Furthermore, 20.2 percent of participants chose a rating of 10, meaning “extremely restrictive.”
The survey also asked “how restricted is speech in the classroom at Fordham University in your opinion?” Participants rated it an average of 4.27. Furthermore, 16.6 percent of participants chose a rating of 1. This suggests that community members feel their speech is not very restricted in classrooms.
When community members were asked “how restricted is speech in public spaces at Fordham University in your opinion?” participants rated it an average of 6.91.
Additionally, 27.8 percent of participants chose a rating of 10. This suggests that community members feel their speech is very restricted in public spaces.
When community members were asked “How restricted is speech in the operations of Fordham affiliated groups and clubs?” participants rated it an average of 6.72. Also, 25.8 percent of participants chose a rating of 10. This suggests that community members feel their speech is very restricted in Fordham affiliated groups and clubs.
Over 160 members of the Fordham community responded to the survey over the course of about three days. About 87 percent of the survey participants were current students while 12 percent of the participants were alumni. About one percent of the participants were administrative members.
Upon reviewing the data, Monika McDermott, P.h.D., professor of political science, said that several conclusions can be made from this data set.
According to the results of the survey, many students feel that their speech at Fordham University is more restricted in public spaces and among the operations of Fordham affiliated groups and clubs. However, most students feel there are far fewer restrictions on freedom of speech in the classroom than in other areas of campus life.
“We should all be troubled that students feel free speech on campus is more restricted than not,” McDermott said. “Americans consistently rank free speech as the most important of the first amendment freedoms – and even the second amendment – and two-thirds feel that we have the right amount of free speech in this country. It is disheartening that our students do not feel the same way about the air constitutional right to speech.”
Among those who were willing to express what the restrictions they felt were in a written response, most responders pointed to the liberal atmosphere in classrooms and on campus that stifle conservative expression, according to McDermott.
The second most common mention was stifling of restrictions on liberal groups, specifically Women’s Empowerment, according to McDermott.
“As a professor I am obviously happy to see that students feel that they have more freedom than not to express their views in the classroom,” McDermott said. “But at the same time, the fact that any single conservative student feels uncomfortable expressing their views in the classroom I find unacceptable. Liberal views typically dominate university campuses, among both students and faculty, but they should not squeeze out alternatives.”
Several club leaders weighed in on Fordham’s free speech in the social media survey. Declan Murphy, FCRH ’18 a member of the Mimes and Mummers, expressed concerns regarding administration’s review of scripts.
“We have continually dealt with the need to edit/restrict scripts to meet Fordham’s ‘standards,’ Murphy said. “I find this to be a breach of free speech.”
Other students feel that Fordham’s speech laws stifle their ability to promote justice and equity on campus.
“Fordham has repeatedly stifled the opinions of students in regards to Palestinian freedom, women’s rights, restrooms for transgender students, safe sex and more,” said Megan Townsend, FCRH ’18. “It is a long list, but I am a highly involved student and I have felt silenced here on a number of occasions, all when trying to work for justice which Fordham claims to prioritize and encourage.”
Most responders to the written part of the survey pointed to the liberal atmosphere in classrooms and on campus that stifle conservative expression as a deterrent of free speech.
“I feel as though if I say anything that is not in line with extreme liberal context I will be judged and hated on,” said Peter Cooper.
The survey was posted on The Ram’s Facebook and Twitter page. The survey was also shared in several student groups.