An epidemic of anti-speech activity swept across the campuses of American colleges and universities in 2015 and shows little sign of abating in 2016. Not long ago, these same institutions were at the vanguard of First Amendment issues; students demanded—then made powerful use of—expanded speech rights on campus, and administrators held academic freedom sacrosanct.
These positions reflected a shared understanding that intellectual inquiry requires an environment in which debate is uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, even if it occasionally results in unpleasant or offensive exchanges. Today, however, the focus seems to be on limiting rather than promoting the open exchange of ideas. Students who once protested to have their voices heard now seek to silence those they disagree with or find threatening. Meanwhile, university administrators appear locked in a competition to determine which school will take the toughest stand against offensive, unpopular, and hurtful speech. First Amendment principles have given way to identity politics, trigger warnings, and so-called “safe spaces,” and the Free Speech Movement has, at many colleges, become the Anti-Speech Movement.
Since 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Center has awarded Jefferson Muzzles to those individuals and institutions responsible for the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to free speech during the preceding year. Our usual practice has been to select eight to twelve recipients each year, reflecting the unfortunate reality that threats to free expression regularly occur at all levels of government. This year, however, we were compelled to take a different approach. Never in our 25 years of awarding the Jefferson Muzzles have we observed such an alarming concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw last year on college campuses across the country. We are therefore awarding Jefferson Muzzles to the 50 colleges and universities discussed below, both as an admonishment for the acts already done and a reminder that it is not too late to change course.
Before we reveal this year’s “winners,” it is worth noting that several schools actively pushed back against the tide of anti-speech sentiment in 2015. In January, the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago issued a free speech policy statement guaranteeing “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” and recognizing that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Several institutions, including American University, Princeton, Purdue, and Winston-Salem State have since adopted the core tenets of the Chicago statement as their own. These schools are to be commended and we certainly hope that many more will soon follow their example, but until a great majority of college students and administrators come together to speak out against the Anti-Speech Movement, our most reliable bastions of free expression will increasingly be rendered unrecognizable.
The recipients of the 2016 Jefferson Muzzle awards are presented below, divided into the following five categories: Censorship of Students, Censorship by Students, Efforts to Limit Press Access on Campus, Threats to Academic Freedom, and Censorship of Outside Speakers.