Boston University and Boston College, two private schools in Massachusetts’s capital city, both rank in the nation’s top 50 colleges and universities, according to U.S. News and World Report. However, new survey data from RealClearEducation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the research firm College Pulse shows both Boston schools are among the nation’s worst for free speech on campus.
The schools were two of the 159 colleges and universities featured in the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, based on a survey of more than 37,000 students at institutions across the country. Both Boston College (151st) and Boston University (143rd) finished among the worst 20 schools in the rankings, which were determined by student survey results and school policies related to speech on campus.
At Boston College, a Jesuit school southwest of Boston, students on both sides of the political spectrum expressed dissatisfaction with the speech culture on campus.
“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,” one BC student said.
Another student argued that the BC “administration really has an issue with race on campus” and said “sometimes these topics can be uncomfortable” to discuss.
Survey results from BC substantiate those students’ frustrations. Fifty-nine percent of students said they would be uncomfortable expressing their views on controversial topics in an in-class discussion. Only 21% said it was very or extremely clear that the administration supports free speech. Nearly two-thirds said they were uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial subject.
FIRE’s Senior Research Counsel Adam Goldstein told RealClearEducation that BC’s written policies restricting student expression also contributed to the school’s low ranking.
“Boston College’s [internet-use] policy prohibits ‘potentially offensive language’ in network messages and ‘intolerant language’ anywhere, and retains sole discretion to decide what those terms mean,” he said.
Much of the BC student body appears to support such speech restrictions. For example, 66% of BC students surveyed would oppose allowing a speaker on campus who believes abortion should be illegal. This is notable given that BC is a Catholic institution, and the visible head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called abortion “murder” and claimed that “those who carry out abortions kill.” If you take BC students at their word, a majority would oppose allowing the Pope to speak on campus.
At nearby Boston University, the school’s low ranking is due to several similar factors – a lack of student confidence in administrative support for speech, a censorious campus culture, and restrictive written policies.
Only 27% of surveyed BU students said it was very or extremely clear that the school’s administration supports free speech on campus. Fifty-nine percent of BU students are uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial issue, and 45% are uncomfortable airing their views on such subjects in a class environment.
Despite this restricted environment, some BU students argue that the school has not gone far enough to crack down on right-wing speakers. “BU felt the need to capitulate to the extreme right-wing student groups’ demands for student tuition to be provided for extreme right-wing speakers’ security fees despite the conflict with campus culture and general morality and refused to hear student opinions demanding the speaker be either not provided security fees or not allowed to speak on campus,” one student told pollsters.
Goldstein said that BU also has written policies that restrict student speech. “Boston University prohibits using the [University network] ‘irresponsibly’ or transmitting ‘offensive’ material, and no student could reasonably be expected to know what every recipient might find offensive, or what a given administrator thinks is irresponsible,” he told RealClearEducation.
At both BC and BU, the biggest problem may be a lack of consistency. Boston College and Boston Universities are private institutions, meaning they are not legally bound to offer students the First Amendment speech protections guaranteed by the Constitution. Both schools, however, make written commitments to free expression in their student codes of conduct. Neither school, argues Goldstein, lives up to their word.
“While both BC and BU claim to preserve student free expression rights on campus,” he said, “[their] policies cannot be reconciled with those promises.”