The 2021 campus free speech rankings are out. See where NC schools landed

Wake Forest University landed at the bottom of rankings in the original report, now amended

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RALEIGH — The latest campus free speech rankings are out and most of the North Carolina colleges included in the report are still earning positive marks. One state school, however, has slipped into the bottom half of the list.

The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings has been published as a partnership between the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), The College Pulse and RealClearEducation. The latter organizations were commissioned to survey 37,000 students currently enrolled in four-year schools spanning 159 colleges.


The report touts itself as “a comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on their campuses,” and the current survey is “the largest survey of college students about free speech on their campuses ever conducted.”

The rankings are compiled from scores in a number of categories including Openness, Tolerance for Conservative Speakers, Tolerance for Liberal Speakers, Administrative Support for Free Speech, Comfort Expressing Ideas, Disruptive Conduct, and FIRE’s Speech Code Rating. The “Overall Score” given to an institution is the sum of the seven category scores.

Claremont McKenna came in as the highest ranked school on the 2021 Free Speech Rankings while DePauw University has the lowest overall score for the second year in a row.

Other low-ranking schools at the bottom of the list include Boston College, Louisiana State University, Marquette University and North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, which ranked 109 out of the 154 schools FIRE examined.

Wake Forest University’s yellow rating is a downgrade from red in 2020.

In response to a request for comment, Cheryl V. Walker, executive director of strategic communications at Wake Forest University, wrote in an email that “Wake Forest values freedom of expression.”

“The University is committed to providing all students the right to openly dissent and to speak, write, listen, challenge, protest, and learn,” Walker said in the email.

Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University made FIRE’s top 25 college rankings for overall free speech.

Schools earning a green light in 2021 include Appalachian State University, Duke University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University, North Carolina Central University, N.C. State, Western Carolina University, and UNC System schools at Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Greensboro, Pembroke and Wilmington.

Yellow-light ratings remained unchanged for Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina A&T State University, UNC Asheville and UNC School of the Arts.

Davidson College had a red light in FIRE’s report in 2020 but has improved from red to yellow in the 2021 rankings.

Winston-Salem State University had been issued a red light prior to the 2020 report, but the school was later issued a yellow light. The school’s status has not changed in the 2021 rankings.

According to FIRE and the College Pulse, other highlights from the report include:

  • More than 80% of students report self-censoring their viewpoints at their colleges at least some of the time, with 21% saying they censor themselves often.
  • Generally, students showed much greater intolerance for campus speakers with conservative positions.
  • Racial inequality, abortion and gun control top the list of most difficult subjects to discuss.
  • Two-thirds of students report some level of acceptance for speaker shout-downs
  • Twenty-three percent consider it acceptable for people to use violence to stop certain speech, which FIRE says is “sharply up 5 percentage points from last year’s 18%.”
  • Only a third of students say that their college administration makes it either very or extremely clear that they will protect free speech on campus.
  • Over 50% of students identify racial inequality as a difficult topic to discuss on their campus.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that “Wake Forest University’s red rating is a downgrade from yellow in 2020,” and that the school ranked 151 out of the 154 in the list examined by FIRE. According to updated information from officials with, a coding issue incorrectly placed Wake Forest University near the bottom of the list coming in at 151. FIRE says the school currently is ranked 109 has a Yellow rating but the school did have a Red rating in the past.
About A.P. Dillon 1342 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_