Free speech may not be so free on college campuses in Maine, according to a recent ranking done by College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
Out of the 248 colleges that were ranked, all four of the schools in Maine fell within the bottom portion of the list. Bowdoin College came in as the school with the greatest degree of free speech in Maine with a ranking of 122. Coming in at 213, Bates College was found to have the worst track record for free speech in the state.
In comparison to the 24 colleges in New England included in the ranking, Maine’s schools were relatively evenly distributed throughout. Bowdoin lands right near the top of the list, preceded only by two other schools. Meanwhile, Bates fell almost at the bottom of the list, followed by only four other colleges — including Harvard University.
About the Rankings
College Pulse and FIRE developed a “comprehensive comparison” of the “student experience of free speech on their campuses.”
In order to develop these rankings, more than 55,000 students were asked to rate their campus’ free speech climate according to six criteria — openness, tolerance for controversial liberal speakers, tolerance for controversial conservative speakers, administration support for free speech, their comfort expressing ideas, tolerance for disruptive conduct.
The openness criteria was designed to measure a “student’s perceived ability to have difficult conversations on campus.” Students were asked whether they would feel open to discussing a range of topics on campus, including many that are traditionally considered controversial, such as “race, transgender issues, abortion, and gun control.”
To gauge students’ tolerance toward controversial speakers, respondents were asked whether they would support or oppose speakers with a number of controversial viewpoints “being allowed to speak on their campuses.”
Two questions asked of students were explicitly aimed at getting a sense of the degree to which there is administrative support for free speech on their respective campuses: “How clear is it to you that your college administration protects free speech on campus?” and “If a controversy over offensive speech were to occur on your campus, how likely is it that the administration would defend the speaker’s right to express their views?”
Students were also asked about their comfort level for expressing ideas on campus via a series of questions gauging their willingness to engage in activities such as publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic” and “expressing your views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion.”
To measure the acceptability of disruptive behavior on campuses, students were asked to determine whether a variety of speech-inhibiting activities — such as blocking others from attending a speech on campus or using violence to stop a speech on campus — were acceptable or unacceptable in their opinion.
Also factoring into each school’s overall score was a rating of their speech code, analyzing how well they “uphold fundamental principles of free speech and academic freedom.”
A “green” rating indicates that a school’s policy environment is more friendly toward free speech, while a “red” rating suggests the opposite. A “yellow” rating means that the school’s policy environment is somewhere in between.
If a school’s policy environment is labeled under the “warning” category, it means that their policies clearly and consistently favor particular values over freedom of speech.
In addition to gathering students’ responses to these questions, the survey also asked them to share moments when they “personally felt [they] could not express [their] opinion on [their] campus.”
Rankings for Maine Colleges
Out of the 248 colleges included in the rankings, none of Maine’s higher education institutions cracked the top 100.
Out of all the schools in Maine, Bowdoin ranked the best in terms of openness, students’ comfort expressing ideas, and administrative support.
One Bowdoin student from the class of 2026 shared the following:
“As a relatively conservative student on what feels to be an extremely liberal campus, sometimes I feel as though I have to shelter my opinions in certain Economics and Government/Political Science classes. A few weeks ago, in an economics class, I disagreed with a professors suggestion of a certain policy, but bit my tongue a bit in voicing out against it. Sometimes, when advocating for an opinion that is more likely conservative, you feel alone and ostracized on campus.”
“There are moments in class where either a professor or students would joke/poke fun at the political party I align with, making it difficult for me to speak up,” said a class of 2024 student.
“Bowdoin’s professors have mostly liberal ideology. It’s hard to express any religious or conservative views or feelings,” a member of the class of 2023 shared.
Several respondents also spoke about a lack of free speech for students who are “POC” — or “people of color.”
A student from the class of 2024 wrote:
“A certain series of events repeats fairly often in which people discuss BIPOC issues but neglect the “I” portion every single time. Bringing up indigenous struggles (such as how indigenous women are the most likely demographic to be murdered in the US and how indigenous women are twice as likely to have PTSD than any other race of women in the US) always upsets people because they think that indigenous people can’t possibly suffer more than another race, that indigenous people don’t matter as much as other races, or say that actually, they’re indigenous (despite not being a recognized citizen of any tribal nation). There is always backlash, and I hate this school with a passion.”
One student, also part of the class of 2024, said:
“Anything about wh*te people not having culture because I’m surrounded by wh*te people.”
“I have tried before in a class and my opinion was not taken seriously. I disagreed over something that was racist about one of our readings and as a POC my very white professor did not support me and singled me and other POC students out,” another class of 2024 student wrote.
Colby College — which came in 50 out of 400 in the U.S. News and World Report rankings — came in 139th nationwide with a “slightly below average” speech climate.
Compared to other Maine schools, Colby College students exhibited the most tolerance toward both liberal and conservative speakers. At the same time, however, the college ranked worst in the state in terms of administrative support.
“In a specific class I knew how strongly my professor felt about a certain topic so I clearly made my work to align with what I thought they would like to get a good grade and get approval from them,” a student from the class of 2025 shared.
A student from the class of 2024 said:
“When I took at sex and gender seminar class, one of the student led presentation was about sex and religion and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my opinion because of how people might respond and because of fear of being looked at differently.”
A member of the class of 2024 wrote:
“My view surrounding the lgbtq+ community often is seen as homophobia before I can explain anything. Like if I don’t want to go to a queer party or disagree about what defines a woman. Also, my pro black radical views are not the majority view point and since I am still within an institution born out of white supremacy, I have to hold my tongue.“
“In a sociology class when the prof asked what the American flag stood for and I said freedom but he said wrong, it’s for slavery and exploitation,” a class of 2023 student said.
The University of Maine ranked 141st nationwide with a “slightly below average” speech climate.
Students from the University of Maine had the lowest tolerance for disruptive behavior, as well as the lowest acceptance of controversial liberal speakers. At the same time, University of Maine students have the lowest level of comfort expressing ideas on campus, as well as the least amount of openness with their opinions.
“Physics professors often talk about political things in class, where 98% of the students agree with them. I am left in the minority and feel isolated,” a member of the class of 2024 wrote.
One student from the class of 2024 said:
“I feel like when it comes to any sociopolitical matter it is extremely hard to express your feelings even when you are middle to the right regardless of subject. Even saying that you support the troops is now controversial.”
A student from the class of 2026 shared:
“Being a post-op trans man, it is expected that I conform to liberal values. But I on the other hand am very conservative on certain issues. I have had other students lash out at me when I was a political science major on the topic of the American revolution and monarchy.”
“During one of my classes, we were going over a controversial court case. I could tell that my professor was leaning more towards one side, which I strongly opposed; however, I felt to nervous to say anything out of fear she would judge me for my beliefs,” a student from the class of 2025 said.
Bates College — the lowest ranked school in the state — came in 213th nationwide and was deemed to have a “below average” speech climate.
In comparison to the other schools in Maine, Bates had the highest tolerance for disruptive conduct, as well as the lowest tolerance for allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus.
“I was in a critical perspective in sports class and we were discussing transgender athletes. The conversation was completely one sided and there was never opportunity to give another perspective. I think this school really limits conversation because it only allows a certain political view to have a voice. It’s unfortunate and sad that individuals feel they need to hide their opinions because this “oh so inclusive” campus alienates and dismisses any opinion that does not align with the majority at a liberal arts,” wrote a student from the class of 2024.
Another class of 2024 shared:
“I think the main problem I navigate while at Bates is not being able to think political problems out loud without fearing judgement or cancel culture. I feel like I have to have fully formed political stances when in reality there are times where I’m still learning and figuring out what I believe.”
“Personally, I feel like any comment disagreeing with the US being on stolen Native American Land, any pushback on privilege, or arguing against any group other than white straight men being oppressed, would receive substantial negative social stigma,” a class of 2023 student wrote.
Another student from the class of 2023 said:
“I often feel like the general Bates community is dedicated to a very democratically liberal image, which I agree with for areas but not entirely. Many Bates students tend to be very hypocritical and do not understand the weight of their words, or the privilege displayed by their position. They generally have a difficult time viewing issues from other positions and see it as a black and white situation.”
Similarly to at Bowdoin, several students noted a lack of free speech for members of minority communities on campus.
“Palestine/Israel conflict; supportive of the state but not necessarily of Israel’s actions – as a Jewish student puts you in an uncomfortable situation where individuals automatically assume your POV,” a member of the class of 2024 said.
Another class of 2024 student wrote:
“The school is fairly Liberal yet misses the needs that bipoc students deserve. Often time professors and administration dismiss what bipoc students bring up.”
“Being a person of color, I felt I did not really have a massive voice at a PWI,” a student from the class of 2023 shared.
How Maine Stacks Up
Of the 24 New England colleges included in the rankings, Maine’s schools are scattered throughout the list.
The only schools in the area with an environment more conducive to free speech than Bowdoin were Worchester Polytechnic Institute (#78) and the University of New Hampshire (#3).
Between Bowdoin and Colby on the list are the University of Massachusetts (#132), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (#136), and Brandeis University (#138).
The University of Maine then directly follows Colby College.
There are then a number of colleges — eleven in total — before Bates appears on the list. Among the colleges in this section of the list are Boston University (#152), Wellesley College (#167), Tufts University (#183), and Northeastern University (#198).
The only New England colleges with a lower ranking than Bates were Boston College (#229), Middlebury College (#233), Dartmouth College (#240), and — in the very last spot on the entire, nationwide ranking list — Harvard University (#248).
As evidences by the student comments included with the rankings, the need for free speech — especially on college campuses — is not a left-versus-right issue.
Rather, students with a range of ideological perspectives and from a variety of backgrounds are currently hungering for an environment in which they can feel free to express their thoughts and opinions without fear of unreasonable repercussions.
Click here to explore the college free speech rankings for yourself.