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Monday, January 08, 2018

Free Speech Rankings and Religiously Affiliated Universities

I had the fun task, recently, of serving on my university’s speech and expression task force, which revised our university’s speech policy.  In conjunction with this work, I began to follow the Foundation for Individual Rights of Education’s (FIRE’s) criticism of my school –Chicago’s own DePaul University. 

I was surprised by what I found.  FIRE’s treatment of religiously affiliated universities, like mine, to be, to say the least, perplexing!

There are at least two kinds of religiously affiliated universities.

First, some religiously affiliated universities prioritize religious values above campus pluralism, free speech, and viewpoint diversity.  Let’s call these uncomplicated religious universities.

Then there are religiously affiliated schools that are, let’s say, more conflicted about how to square speech values with their own religious identity.  Below, I’ll call these complicated religious universities. 

My fair school is a perfect example of a school in the latter, complicated category. On the one hand, DePaul, across its various policy statements over the years, consistently acknowledges the value of student expression. DePaul, though, is also a Catholic university, affiliated with the Vincentians, a religious order committed to inculcating Catholic social justice values. 

And the university struggles to square these commitments.  This has led it, in past years, to promulgate speech policies that gesture to both speech values and the university’s Vincentian mission without offering administrators much guidance about how to reconcile the two when they come into apparent conflict.

One way for a free speech rating organization to approach these two types of religious universities is to hold them to the same standard as other, secular institutions. In other words, treat all institutions alike.  Criticize complicated and uncomplicated and religious mission schools equally when they put their distinctive religious values ahead of speech values.

If FIRE had done something like this, DePaul, I suspect, would end up looking okay from a speech protection perspective, relative to some universities and not very good relative to others—in other words, somewhere in the broad middle of the pack.

But FIRE did something quite different. It exempted schools with uncomplicated religious identities from its rating system.  (You can see this old rating system in this 2015 report).  “Exempt” schools, in turn, mostly escaped its often quite pointed public criticism. 

Yet, FIRE classified schools like DePaul—those that take speech seriously enough to include at least vague pro-speech statements in their speech policies—as non-exempt. As a result, the DePauls of the world were judged not against the baseline set by traditional religious schools but, instead, by the baseline set by secular universities with stronger public and institutional commitment to speech values.

The ensuing rankings were perverse: FIRE perennially bashes DePaul as one of the “worst” school for free speech in the country--but only because FIRE has used a skewed set of comparators that exclude other religiously affiliated schools with, arguably, worse speech records.

This created strange incentives, from FIRE’s standpoint.  (If you want to avoid FIRE’s ire, one way is to just adopt a policy that completely subordinates speech to religious values!) 

It also, it seems to me, gave ammunition to critics who characterize FIRE as a crypto-partisan organization more interested in supplying talking points for the right wing culture wars than fighting for speech rights in a truly nonpartisan fashion.  The exempt schools that it insulated from its rating system, and attendant criticism, tended to be pretty conservative. By contrast, religious schools with complicated identities, like DePaul, that its rating system set up for attack tend to have more progressive institutional cultures.

Thankfully, FIRE seems to be rethinking its approach—in the last couple of years, it added a new blue “warning” label for schools that forthrightly prioritize other values over speech.  

But at the same time, it continues to treat conservative religious schools with a light touch.  (Liberty University, which actually is among the worst schools for speech in America, has yet to make FIRE's annual "worst of" lists, for example.)

I share FIRE’s commitment to campus speech.  But I’d urge it to continue to reassess how it treats schools with meaningful religious identities.  In a subsequent post, I’ll offer some thoughts about how to do so.   

Posted by Mark Moller on January 8, 2018 at 02:33 AM | Permalink


I agree with you that it is tricky to balance an institution's permitted biases with a desire to allow free speech. I think FIRE's problem is that DEPaul is not honest about its policy. Claiming to be free speech, while actually being one-sided is worse than clearly being a sectarian institution.
Just for clarification, are you saying that the specific anti-free speech actions FIRE flagged were a result of the Vicentian affiliation?
What part of DePaul's religious mission requires it to prohibit students drawing pro-Trump messages on the sidewalk?
Or, while allowing an obnoxious speaker to visit, to cut in half the time allowed and the space allowed for his speech?
Or to not punish those who violently prevented that speaker from completing his speech?
Or to punish a group for attempting to demonstrate the unfairness of affirmative action?

Posted by: biff | Jan 9, 2018 11:28:54 AM

My school is also a Vincentian university, which of course also means that it is a Catholic university. I've never once thought that the fact of its Catholic affiliation was prima facie evidence that it was "conflicted" about its commitment to free speech or pluralism.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jan 9, 2018 9:27:21 AM

Following on Rick’s point: The putatively non-religious universities of the United States, especially the elite ones, are rapidly becoming notorious for homogeneity of acceptable opinion. By contrast, the Catholic Church is, by far, the most pluralistic and diverse institution I participate in, and quite probably the most diverse anywhere — understanding diversity to encompass all possible dimensions, social, economic, ethnic, national, and intellectual (among others). The Church celebrates its diversity. The extraordinary diversity both across and within Catholic unversities reflects this. At least in that case, then, the original post rests on a misconception.

Posted by: Adrian Vermeule | Jan 9, 2018 9:20:38 AM

I worry that Mark's post starts from a premise that non-religious institutions in fact embrace and respect, as "values," "campus pluralism, free speech, and viewpoint diversity" and that the question to be asked about religious institutions is whether or not (or to what extent) they choose to fail to do so. I suspect that, even at most "uncomplicated" religious institutions, there is at least as much on-the-ground viewpoint diversity as there is at most non-religious institutions. Such diversity need not be inconsistent, in practice, with an institution's having a meaningful commitment to a thoroughgoing religious character and mission.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 9, 2018 8:24:54 AM

This is a very good point. It demonstrates first, that these sorts of assessments are never mechanical and are fully value-laden--- to rank a school is to make a full, all-things-considered judgment of the type of speech it allows and disallows.

Second, it does show a thumb-on-the-scale against religious schools, because the choice is to ghettoize a la Catholic U, or fully secularize, a la Georgetown. Seeking a middle way gets you penalized.

The tension I think comes from the fact that a Catholic wouldn't say freedom is limited by prohibiting abortion or prohibiting a professor from teaching 1+1=3 or from teaching homosexuality is permissible. Freedom is maximized in those situations. Freedom is a full picture of the good, incommensurable with the classical liberal worldview.

Posted by: AndyK | Jan 8, 2018 9:47:54 AM

Mark - Could you give a few examples or illustrations (real or hypothetical) of cases that would illustrate a "conflict" between free-speech values and an institution's religious mission or character? That is, what "counts" as such a case (in your view, not FIRE's). Thx, Rick

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 8, 2018 9:17:51 AM

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