FSU spurr⁠i⁠ng Flor⁠i⁠da’s r⁠i⁠se ⁠t⁠o prom⁠i⁠nence on campus free speech | Op⁠i⁠n⁠i⁠on

By: Logan Padgett / 2020



William Mattox


John Thrasher’s tenure as president of Florida State University someday will be remembered as a time when FSU made a dramatic leap in the U.S. News national rankings, rising to become a Top 20 public university. But it should also be hailed for a less-recognized accomplishment – FSU’s equally dramatic rise in the campus free expression ratings issued by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE’s ratings are considered the gold standard for determining how well a university’s policies respect the need for open inquiry, divergent thought and the rigorous testing of ideas in the pursuit of truth.

For many years, FSU received FIRE’s worst rating – a “red light” warning. But earlier this year, FSU moved all the way from the outhouse to the penthouse, securing FIRE’s full-fledged seal of approval – a “green light” rating.

FSU’s dramatic rise mirrors a similar transformation that occurred at the University of Florida several years ago. UF’s speech code policies were so bad in the early 2010s that it once made FIRE’s ignominious list of Worst Ten Schools for Free Speech. Yet, by 2017, the University of Florida had made so many notable improvements that it not only achieved FIRE’s green light status, but also won a Top 5 national ranking from Heterodox Academy for its campus free speech ethos.
The fact that both FSU and UF now enjoy FIRE’s top rating means Florida is one of only five states in which its two most prominent public universities both have green light ratings from FIRE. (Arizona, Mississippi, New Hampshire and North Carolina are the others.) Moreover, thanks largely to these two flagship institutions and the University of North Florida, our state has overall FIRE ratings above the national average.

Nationally, only 11% of the 473 schools rated by FIRE receive a green light designation; 64% receive a yellow light rating; and 23% receive a red light rating.

Still, many of our state universities have some significant work to do if Florida is to join Arizona, Mississippi and New Hampshire as an all-green-light state. And lest there be any doubt, becoming an all-green-light state should be the goal of our higher education system, particularly since this would help burnish Florida’s brand as a national leader in promoting free expression and academic excellence.

Accordingly, the Florida Legislature ought to consider requiring state universities to have a green light rating from FIRE in order to qualify for future performance funding bonuses. In many ways, FIRE’s green light rating ought to be treated much like accreditation – as a minimum qualification for our state’s institutions of higher learning to meet.

Sadly, many nationally recognized universities have actively adopted illiberal campus policies, such as highly restrictive speech zones and speech codes. Moreover, many purportedly elite institutions have passively tolerated idea suppression tactics on the part of student activists — such as disinviting speakers and shouting down those with whom they disagree.

In view of these changes in campus climate, it is refreshing to see Florida’s flagship state universities charting a different course – promoting free expression and constructive dialogue in a manner worthy of imitation by other state universities.

William Mattox is the director of the Stan Marshall Center at the James Madison Institute. This is an excerpt from a new JMI report entitled, “Combatting Idea Suppression: How Florida Universities Can Continue Their Rise to National Prominence.”

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