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The Remarkable Connection Between Free Speech and Bodily Autonomy at Universities
The free speech advocacy organization FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) creates an annual ranking of colleges from best to worst environments for free speech on campus. 2022/2023’s list, based on responses from 45,000 students at more than 200 schools, placed University of Chicago in the top spot, meaning the school “promotes and protects the free exchange of ideas” more than any other college on the list. Columbia University was dead last, with “by far, the lowest score,” and its speech climate rated as “abysmal.”
There are a few notable things about the rankings (a detailed methodology, highlights, summary, and full list is available here). Many of our nation’s most prestigious private universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Amherst, Vassar, Johns Hopkins, Penn, and Northwestern, are in the bottom twenty percent. Conversely, the majority of the top fifth of the list are public and state schools.
It seems pretty clear that while the alumni of fancy colleges may get to enjoy humblebragging and an easier acceptance into top graduate programs or certain professional tracks, if a student is interested in an environment that encourages a diverse range of views and in becoming a heterodox thinker they’re likely better off elsewhere.
The colleges with the most stifling atmospheres for speech also have the most aggressive Covid vaccine policies. The colleges that most welcome and protect a free exchange of ideas, in turn, have the least intrusive vaccine requirements.
Number 1 ranked Chicago has no vaccine mandate at all. The university merely “strongly recommends” Covid vaccination. Numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the list – Kansas State, Purdue, Mississippi State, and Oklahoma State – do not require any Covid vaccination either. They do each highly encourage vaccination, though.
At the bottom, Columbia not only requires the primary series for its students, but also requires the most recent bivalent booster. Ditto for second-to-last place Penn. For the many students who received an initial booster early on, this means a requirement of four doses. Rounding out the worst five colleges for free speech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgetown, and Skidmore also mandate all students be boosted. Though compared to Columbia and Penn they are relatively lax, only requiring “a booster,” meaning the third shot could have been from a long while ago, and not necessarily the bivalent.
Why are the colleges with the worst limits on free speech also the worst for limiting bodily autonomy?
Columbia and its ilk had a history of liberalism which, as is well-known now, has recently morphed into a more stifling form of modern progressivism that doesn’t tolerate dissent. The political tribalism that demands in-group thinking also demands in-group behavior — during, and now exiting the pandemic, the more extreme that one reacted toward Covid, the more one demonstrated their membership in the left wing. (Being double masked and triple vaxxed was for a long time a progressive identity marker.) Quite simply, an extreme vaccination policy, out of step with much of the world yet perfectly accepted in progressive America, announces one’s institution as an unimpeachable member of the tribe.
That there is an association between respect toward free speech and respect toward bodily autonomy — or a lack thereof for each — at academic institutions shouldn’t surprise anyone. Both reflect attitudes either in agreement with or against a libertarian ideal of individual freedom. But the degree of correlation is still disheartening. There is no evidence that requiring boosters (or even the primary series) at many colleges made an iota of difference regarding the transmission of Covid on campus or, more importantly, the incidence of severe disease relative to colleges that simply encourage vaccination. (It is not a secret that the vaccines do not stop infection or transmission, a phenomenon that most people have experienced firsthand.) But the administrators at Columbia and the like, by being the most militant with their vaccine requirements, get to signal their progressive bona fides, which, it seems, is what their institutions care about most.
Though my kids are not college-aged, I’ve become intimately familiar with the harm of these university policies that are rooted in signaling rather than science.
I receive a steady stream of emails and messages from people around the country responding to my work, often seeking help or advice, or simply looking for a sounding board. I let out a sigh of recognition when I recently opened yet another email, similar to many I had received before, from a mom in Connecticut whose high school son got accepted to an elite university that requires the bivalent booster. “I’m a lifelong democrat. I was an early Elizabeth Warren supporter. I’m vaccinated. I believe the vaccines help prevent serious illness and death in older people. But I don’t want my son to get another dose. He’s already had Covid, twice. He’s healthy and he doesn’t need it.”
Unfortunately, I had no suggestions to offer her. It’s also telling that she included the “I’m a liberal” preamble, still a common occurrence in messages I receive where there is even a hint of questioning vaccines. That people feel the need to declare a preemptive apologia for expressing the “wrong view” is a damning indictment of the illiberalism of the modern left.
Apparently the bureaucrats at Columbia and the like are unaware (or don’t care) that several advisors to both the FDA and CDC stated that their “yes” votes for various vaccine approvals were not to be construed as an invitation toward mandates. And Paul Offit, an FDA advisor and renowned vaccine expert and advocate, has publicly condemned the government’s booster recommendations, and advised his son, who is in his twenties, to not get a booster.
It is an embarrassment that policies at many of our most elite institutions of higher education are the most divorced from scientific evidence, and are now, finally, even alienating mainstream liberals. FIRE’s free speech rankings, alas, help explain how we got to this place.
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