The university moves up 95 places in rankings.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression or FIRE (formerly the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), together with College Pulse, released on September 7 their updated College Free Speech Rankings, in which they surveyed 208 colleges and ranked them according to how much each college tolerated free speech. 

The University of Chicago ranked number one for the second time in three years, while Columbia University placed last at number 203; five of the 208 schools surveyed had policies which explicitly promoted other values as more important than free speech, so these schools were not compared to the rest of the schools, only to each other. Notre Dame was ranked 31st (up from 126th last year), and is notably the highest-ranked Catholic school. Georgetown University placed in the bottom ten schools and Boston College was ranked number 146.

FIRE began the rankings two years ago in order to measure something which the organization had observed in their legal advocacy work: colleges are becoming less tolerant of free expression. In the first two years they collected data; the majority of the rankings derived from the surveys of those attending each college with the actual policies and actions of the administrations only minorly affecting a schools ranking. However, FIRE discovered that many of the schools they most often litigated against ranked high on the list. They examined their methodology and discovered that the rankings skewed towards ideologically homogeneous schools, where many students did not fear stating their true beliefs because most of the campus shared them. 

Last year, FIRE identified both Wesleyan and Hillsdale–schools that are well—know to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum—as particular benefactors of this effect, so the bias did not necessarily favor one side of the ideological spectrum. They updated their methodology to include separate categories for tolerance of both  conservative and liberal views in order to reduce this distortion. 

Notre Dame received several positive and negative evaluations from FIRE in the report. She ranked behind schools like University of Memphis, University of New Hampshire, CSU Fresno, Western Michigan University, and the University of Texas at El Paso, all of which are scored significantly lower on other common college rankings such as the U.S. News and World Report. On the other hand, not once has a speaker been disinvited, and 41% of students said that shouting down a speaker is never acceptable. For comparison, the number of UChicago students who agreed with that same statement was 42%. Further, Notre Dame ranked 5th in “comfort expressing ideas.” 

Lastly, the university was the second-highest-ranked private school and the highest-ranked religious school by FIRE. Above all, her jump by ninety-five spots was quite anomalous, especially given that the number of schools surveyed expanded this year—stiffening the competition. Notre Dame’s jump can be explained in part by FIRE’s new methodology. However, FIRE evaluated Notre Dame’s speech code as “red,” the worst score that a school can receive without being ranked separately, so the inclusion of the new criteria cannot fully explain the prodigious jump.

As noted earlier, this ranking was the largest yet; FIRE sampled nearly 45,000 students. Of those surveyed, over half identified abortion as “difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on your campus.” Over forty percent identified the Covid-19 vaccine and mask mandates, gun control, police misconduct, racial equity, and transgender issues as similarly difficult topics. Over 60% of students were “worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood something they said or did,” and one in five students said that they “self-censor” ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ often.” 

Additionally, on some campuses up to 90% of students agreed with banning conservative speakers from presenting at their schools. FIRE’s analysis showed that the highest-ranked schools had very strong administrative support for free expression and had smaller differences between tolerance for liberal viewpoints and tolerance for conservative viewpoints.

When asked by the Rover about the experience of free speech on campus, one student said, “In most but not all cases, I have felt that I may express my views about various topics, including controversial ones, freely. This applies to settings inside and outside of class. However, I did hesitate to express my views on one controversial social issue in one of my classes a few weeks ago.” Another student, a freshman, has had a different experience: “Already in my first month of class, one professor has presented his views as being the absolute right, and framed anyone who disagrees with him as stupid.” A different student, a sophomore, felt that the culture of censoriousness came primarily from students, not professors: “I was hanging out with some people who said that they would never be friends with someone who voted for Trump, not knowing that I voted for him.” 

Our Lady’s university stood out in the rankings, especially in comparison to both other Catholic universities and other universities of her caliber.

Will Grannis is a sophomore honors mathematics and theology major. When he’s not doing math homework or having heated debates with his friends, he can be reached at

Photo Credit: Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression via Wikimedia Commons