FIRE’s 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech in 2019

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently released its list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2019. The winners are:

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.)
Syracuse University (Syracuse, N.Y.)
Georgetown University Qatar (Doha, Qatar)
University of Wisconsin System (Madison, Wis.)
Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.)
Alabama A&M University (Huntsville, Ala.)
University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kan.)
University of North Alabama (Florence, Ala.)
Plymouth State University (Plymouth, N.H.)
Dixie State University (St. George, Utah)

As regards Plymouth State University (where Business Law Basics co-author Sam Brickley teaches), FIRE said:

A university punishes two professors for speaking out and performing a civic duty.

If you think serving as an expert witness and offering a letter of support for a former student in a criminal sentencing hearing is an important exercise of civic duty, you’re not alone. But Plymouth State University thinks otherwise. It fired one professor and disciplined another for doing just that.

Last July, following a criminal trial, Exeter High School guidance counselor and former PSU student Kristie Torbick pled guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. At her sentencing hearing, the court received letters of support asking for leniency, including a letter authored by PSU Professor Emeritus Michael Fischler. Another PSU professor, Dr. Nancy Strapko, served as a paid expert witness in the case and sent a letter to Torbick’s attorney attesting to Torbick’s remorse and progress in therapy. These professors’ actions — and the ensuing outrage over their seeming support of a convicted child predator — did not sit well with PSU, which quickly fired Strapko and required Fischler to complete Title IX training before teaching again.

You might recall that in 2014, FIRE was pleased to award PSU our “green light” rating. It’s an honor reserved only for those colleges and universities that eliminated all of their speech codes. On paper, Plymouth State was fully compliant with its First Amendment obligations as a public university — and it remains so today.

But, as FIRE often reminds administrators, policies are only as meaningful as they prove to be in practice. We celebrate our green light schools, but we’ll also call them to account if they fail to meet the spirit and letter of their published commitments to free expression. And that’s what we’re doing here.

PSU’s punishment of these professors shows a disturbing disregard for their First Amendment rights as private citizens to speak about matters of public concern. Additionally, PSU demonstrates a disdain for a citizen’s right to assist courts in adjudicating criminal matters when called upon — a solemn civic responsibility that forms the backbone of any functional system of justice.

By letting the court of public opinion dictate who may express themselves and remain employed at PSU, the university has chilled the expressive rights of the PSU educational community, to the detriment of the criminal justice system and in contravention of its obligations under the First Amendment.