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Haverford College earns national ranking of #208 for free speech

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

In September, Haverford College ranked among the lowest institutions of higher learning in the country for free speech, placing 208th out of 248 surveyed schools, according to the 2024 Free Speech Rankings, which are administered by College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). For a school ranked 18th among “National Liberal Arts Colleges” by U.S. News & World Report, Haverford’s low ranking for free speech is embarrassing. As a senior at Haverford, I have been disappointed in the lack of administrative action on the issue throughout my four years here.

The survey, which is in its fourth year, compiled student opinions on relevant school policies, the campus speech climate, and personal comfort expressing ideas. A Haverford junior wrote, "The whole campus is just one big hive mind where you either subscribe to certain beliefs or be ostracized/canceled." Another student said, "Something as simple as believing that law enforcement shouldn’t be completely abolished is something I don’t feel comfortable expressing."

Although Haverford leans left politically, with 13.4 liberal students for every conservative, 55% of Haverford students say they self-censor and 70% of Haverford students report anxiety over having their words misunderstood. The numbers suggest that a majority of left-leaning students at Haverford self-censor due to the repressive ideological atmosphere on campus.

To those familiar with the history of free speech at Haverford, these alarming statistics are perhaps more confounding than anything else.

Haverford used to be a leader among its peers for its celebration and active encouragement of free expression. The college once promoted 1st Amendment principles by financially-sponsoring transportation for student protests against the Vietnam War at a time when such protests were considered controversial. Among Haverford’s alumni are the sole appellant in American history to have challenged book-banning at The Supreme Court and notable civil liberties attorneys. Meanwhile, the faculty has included such figures as the renowned social justice advocate Cornel West, who recently wrote a public statement on the importance of freedom of thought and expression in collaboration with conservative scholar Robert P. George.

Free speech is currently undervalued at Haverford

Today, many of my peers at Haverford may view free speech as nothing more than a conservative talking point. I disagree. Free speech is not a right-wing or left-wing issue; it is a human right, and I think we all lose when policy protections and cultural support for freedom of expression erode. If left-leaning students like myself want to criticize book-banning, homophobic speech restrictions, and racist “divisive concept” curriculum bans across the country, we cannot simultaneously restrict free speech for those who don’t toe the party line at Haverford, lest we be hypocritical and complicit in normalizing a culture of censorship in our own backyard.

The Haverford administration is not oblivious to the school’s free speech problem. President Wendy Raymond, in a letter to the campus community on June 13, 2021, admitted that our campus speech code might cause “a reasonable person” to “worry about whether they are free to share their views, whether a political affiliation, a stance on public policy, or a religious value at odds with others.” This school year, Athletics Director Danielle Lynch announced during an NCAA regulatory meeting that “eliminating cancel culture” would be among her goals. Yet progress, on both an administrative and interpersonal level, remains to be seen. Policies which restrict speech remain unchanged.

Today’s “kindly inquisitors” who perpetuate Haverford’s speech restrictions claim the advancement of social justice as their motive. As a gay man, I understand the temptation to wield censorial power with well-seeming intentions. I have been called a “faggot” many times — most recently by a hostile passerby on the street in New York while holding my boyfriend’s hand — and I understand the cutting manner in which words can be painful or shocking. It is true that speech can feel harmful. That is because speech is incredibly powerful.

Yet it is precisely because speech is powerful that we must aggressively protect and promote a culture which celebrates, invites, and encourages free expression. Our ability to speak and write freely forms the cornerstone of our capacity to liberate, educate, and realize progress. In the words of one gay legal scholar, Dale Carpenter, “The First Amendment created gay America.” After all, the first gay organizations, politicians, newspapers, websites — and more — would have been censored out of existence in the absence of a strong First Amendment, which shielded early gay organizing efforts at a time when most of the country supported the outright criminalization of homosexuality.

If we are to transcend the imperfections of our present reality, we must be able to utter that which the status quo of society considers distasteful or even offensive. The notion of progress is itself a provocation. The concept of gay marriage once offended many; now it is law.

Rather than viewing campus censorship as a form of solidarity, I view it with skepticism. The situation in Florida makes it clear that free speech is what enables spaces where minorities can talk about race and sex openly. So, I must disagree when some on campus play the same nefarious game as DeSantis and limit our discussions of race and sex, among other topics, by electing to silence political opponents through speech codes and cancellation rather than engaging in open discourse.

If we want to live in a society which honors our words and identities, then the way we must win is not by banning our opposition, but by proving them wrong intellectually, beating them in elections, and taking them to court when our civil rights and civil liberties are violated. Most importantly, we can choose self-expression over self-censorship in our daily lives, and speak out on the issues which matter to us.

I have encouraged free speech at Haverford by launching The New Kronstadt to focus on issues of expression on campus, and I invite my fellow students to let your life speak in the Quaker tradition. I ask that Haverford’s administrators not abdicate their responsibility as stewards of higher learning to protect academic freedom, which should be at the vanguard of any intellectual project. It takes work to build a culture of free expression, but I believe in our community, and I think we are up to the challenge.

How to rebuild a free speech culture at Haverford

After my sophomore year of college, I interned at FIRE and learned how colleges can overcome the challenge of an entrenched culture of censorship. FIRE has seen success adopting the Chicago Statement at small, liberal arts colleges where there has been significant community engagement and buy-in. Haverford can renew a culture of free expression on campus by adopting the Chicago Statement or drafting a version of it which corresponds more closely to its unique values and eccentricities.

Haverford prides itself on its close-knit community which values input from all constituencies and emphasizes student agency. Examples of institutions making the Chicago Statement adoption process a true community effort abound. Gettysburg College, for example, adopted its version of the Chicago Statement after lively panel discussions and a year-long process of drafting and deliberation by students, faculty, and the administration. The final statement was affirmed by the student and faculty governing bodies and approved by the board of trustees. This extent of community buy-in has only been replicated by three other institutions, according to FIRE: Brandeis University, Colgate University, and Utica College.

Haverford can prioritize both DEI and free expression.

Haverford places a strong emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) — and this provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how social justice and free speech can go hand-in-hand. Haverford should consider drawing on DePauw University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression, which was adopted a few years ago. A private institution like Haverford, DePauw’s leadership involved many constituencies in the drafting process and highlighted the university’s deep dedication to DEI without undercutting its commitment to free expression. This was a careful balance, but the statement turned out strong and represents the university’s priorities well: free expression and diversity — not one at the expense of the other. I believe this dual emphasis would be appealing to the Haverford community. Like Haverford, DePauw was also motivated by a low ranking in the Free Speech Rankings — they were dead last among the 55 schools surveyed in FIRE's 2020 analysis.

Haverford’s free speech ranking is currently low, but we don’t have to accept this as permanent. By making policy changes, Haverford can join a growing chorus of institutions of higher learning who recognize that free speech is at the heart of education and essential to cultivating a diverse community. It is on all of us to ensure that our lives can, and do, speak.


— William Harris, for The New Kronstadt (Nov 10, 2023)

William Harris '24 is a current student at Haverford College.



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