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Other View: How free speech allergies continue to plague colleges and universities across America

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Exterior of the Columbia University library in New York City.
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Columbia, No. 2 on U.S. News & World Report’s coveted college list, withdrew from the rankings this summer after one of its own math professors questioned the figures the school provided the magazine. Now the venerable university has another ranking it may want to quit: the campus free speech comparisons tabulated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The Lions went out like a limping lamb, placing dead last among 203 surveyed schools in the nonprofit’s third annual look at how open institutions of higher learning are to ideas from across the political and ideological spectrum.

The foundation of the rankings is a poll, conducted by College Pulse , of students who were asked whether they could stomach various types of speakers on campus, how open the climate is to free-flowing discussion, how receptive academic leaders are to a wide array of viewpoints, and so on.

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Columbia students had limited comfort expressing ideas in their classes and among their peers, and said their peers often found it acceptable to shout down, block or otherwise silence some invited speakers. (Fordham, 165th on the list, had plenty of problems too, as did NYU, 62nd.) Interestingly, Columbia ranked third in its tolerance for speakers — which suggests students let people they might disagree with on campus, then often try to prevent them from being heard.

Columbia also took a hit for having punished or tried to punish a number of professors in recent years. A psychiatrist was suspended for tweeting offensively about a dark-skinned model; an adjunct professor lost her job after using the N-word in a lecture on hate speech (when quoting from the record regarding the prosecution of a journalist for an interview conducted with racists); and university President Lee Bollinger himself had a class he teaches — on freedom of speech! — interrupted by protesters .

Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar who’s intellectually on the right side of these issues , is stepping down next year to resume teaching full time. His successor should help make Columbia more hospitable to genuinely free interchange.

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