Vanderbilt Ranked 58th for Free Speech: Fact or Fiction?


Megan Michaels, Contributor

Vanderbilt University was ranked 58th out of the 159 colleges evaluated in the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, released on September 21. The rankings were conducted by College Pulse, RealClear Education, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). While the University was ultimately awarded 60 out of a possible 100 points, there are questions about the survey’s methodology and potential donor biases. Further, several noteworthy comments made by Vanderbilt students were featured along with the survey results. Ultimately, these considerations call into question not only Vanderbilt’s ranking, but the validity of the College Free Speech Rankings as a whole. 

The Developers

The findings and methodology of the survey are complicated by the backgrounds of the two major organizations behind it: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and RealClearEducation. RealClear Education is owned by RealClear Media Group, which is funded by the same sources as and has promoted articles by the far-right outlet The Federalist, some of which endorse false election claims. The other organization spearheading the Free Speech Rankings is FIRE, which has received significant funding from many right-wing donors including the Koch brothers. This is in addition to FIRE’s connection to the “Alliance Defending Freedom,” an anti-LGBTQ hate group. Further, FIRE defended (and successfully stopped) University of New Mexico student groups from paying extra security costs related to their choice to host speaker Milo Yiannopolous. Yiannopolous is known for his online harassment and previous resignation from Breitbart over pedophilia-related comments. 

In light of the potential biases and affiliations of both RealClear Education and FIRE, the questions and “Speech Code” rating developed by these groups may be subject to scrutiny. 

The Methodology

Vanderbilt’s overall score of 60 was broken down into 7 categories: comfort expressing ideas (25%), openness (15%), disruptive conduct (12%), administrative support for free speech (10%), tolerance for conservative speakers (16%), tolerance for liberal speakers (16%), and the FIRE Speech Code Rating (6%). Scores for each of the categories (with the exception of the “FIRE Speech Code Rating,”) were based on student responses to a 25 question survey. On the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings website, College Pulse claims that diversity of participants was ensured through recruiting via a number of methods, including “web advertising, email campaigns, and partnerships with university-affiliated organizations.” The responses of participants were then weighted based on their demographics in order to represent the demographics of college students nationally. In total, 250 Vanderbilt students were surveyed.

The “FIRE Speech Code Rating,” however, was not awarded to colleges based on student responses. Rather, a green, yellow, or red-light rating as awarded by the organization FIRE, based on written free speech policies. A green light indicates an institution “does not seriously threaten free speech,” a yellow light has policies that are vague or “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression,” and a red light institution has at least one policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” There is an additional “warning” label for colleges deemed more serious offenders. 

The survey asked participants to state whether they would support or oppose allowing a speaker on campus to express the following opinions:

  1. “Religious liberty is used as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians.” 
  2. “White people are collectively responsible for structural racism and use it to protect their privilege.” 
  3. “Looting is a justifiable form of protest.” 
  4. “The police are racist and should be abolished.” 
  5. “Black Lives Matter is a hate group.”
  6. “The lockdown orders issued in response to the coronavirus have infringed on our personal liberties.”
  7.  “Abortion should be completely illegal.” 
  8. “Transgender people have a mental disorder.” 

The official methodology report maintains that the opinions are “equally controversial” on both the conservative and liberal sides. However, students opposing a speaker who endorsed the statement “transgender people have a mental disorder,” for example, may have done so out of a concern for peer safety on campus, rather than an objection to freedom of speech principles. In this instance, the survey blurs the line between “free speech” and “hate speech.” While hate speech is permitted by the First Amendment, threatening speech that is considered to be a “true threat” is not. Thus, speech (such as one that attacks an individual’s identity) that may be perceived as a gateway to or potentially provoking a “true threat” may not be well-supported due to the unsafe environment it could create, rather than how one stands on campus freedom of speech issues. 

The Results

Overall, Vanderbilt ranked 58th out of 159 peer institutions, and was given a “Speech Code” rating of yellow. Of the Vanderbilt students surveyed, 30% believed that it was never okay to “shoutdown a speaker on campus,” and 61% did not believe any circumstance justified violent protest as a means to stop a speech. Racial inequality was the topic identified as being the most difficult to discuss on campus. 

The rankings webpage also shared anonymous quotes from some of the Vanderbilt students surveyed. Some of the quotes contain controversial, even offensive, claims. One student, from the class of 2021, remarked that “conservatives are the only minority not treated like one” on campus. A member of the class of 2022 alleges that their professor “is fully bought in to the systematic racism narrative,” despite the fact that the inability to express support for the systematic racism “narrative” would be a violation of free speech principles. 


The College Free Speech Rankings raises a number of red flags. The rankings were conducted by three organizations, two of which are connected to donors and have taken actions that suggest strong conservative leanings. The potential biases of these organizations appear to have been reflected in the methodology, upon examination of the questions posed to surveyed students, as well as the potential subjectivity of the “Speech Code” ratings that factored into a Universities overall score. Not to mention, the rankings highlight controversial statements made by several Vanderbilt students, and it is unclear the extent to which these views reflect the positions of other students surveyed, if at all. At the end of the day, it is important to view this depiction of Vanderbilt’s “free speech” culture critically. 

(The full 2021 report can be found here.)

Image credit: Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash